Squaring Off

An Iranian border guard post on the Iran-Iraq border. Photo courtesy of Ayub Nuri.

This week on War News Radio, we take a look at US-Iran diplomacy and hear from analysts about what it means for the two countries to be engaging in talks. Asher Sered and Alex Imas report.

Then, three Iranian-Americans weigh in on US-Iran relations. Kristin Caspar reports.

Next, we hear about a boxing program in Afghanistan that is teaching young women how to roll with the punches. Listen now to Elise Garrity’s report.

Finally, we hear what Iraqi civilians have to say about the timetable for US withdrawal. Sonny Sidhu reports.

These stories, plus the news, from War News Radio.


VARIOUS: “From Swarthmore College, this is War News Radio.”

ASHER SERED: I’m Asher Sered.

KRISTIN CASPAR: And I’m Kristin Caspar.

ANDREW GROTTO: It won’t be easy, it won’t necessarily produce results right away. But, you know, by talking to them, we get better information about their objectives and their interests and that will produce more and better policy options.

ASHER SERED: Recently, the United States announced a shift in its diplomatic policy towards Iran. How the US chooses to deal with the Iranian government may have long-term consequences. This week on War News Radio: Squaring Off. First, we look at relations between the United States and Iran.

KRISTIN CASPAR: Also, we talk to Iranian-Americans about their thoughts on the changing relationship between the United States and Iran.

ASHER SERED: Then, we hear about Afghanistan’s first Women’s Boxing Federation, and how it’s becoming a movement for women’s empowerment.

KRISTIN CASPAR: Finally, we talk with three Iraqis about timetables for the withdrawal of American troops from their country.

ASHER SERED: But first, a roundup of this week’s news.

KRISTIN CASPAR: Last Sunday, American troops killed the son and nephew of Governor al-Shakti of Salaheddin province in northern Iraq. The U.S. military said that soldiers entered a house in the town of Baiji, and were met by two armed men. Perceiving hostile intent, the soldiers opened fire. An al-Qaeda financier was captured during the raid. Governor al-Shakti’s brother called the killings “barbaric and inhuman” and the deputy governor of Salaheddin province has called for an investigation into the deaths.

ASHER SERED: Earlier this week, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani rejected a law passed by the Parliament that would have paved the way for provincial elections later this year. Talabani rejected the law because it was passed by a parliament that consisted of less than half its elected members, following a walkout by the entire Kurdish delegation over the redistribution of provincial council seats in Kirkuk. This may cause a further delay in elections that have already been delayed once before. Provincial elections are due to take place on December 22.

KRISTIN CASPAR: The International Olympic Committee barred Iraq’s seven-person delegation from participating in next month’s Olympic Games following a dispute between the IOC and the Iraqi government. The dispute began in May, when Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki accused the Iraqi Olympic committee of corruption, dissolved the committee, and appointed the Minister of Sport to be the provisional chair. Because the Olympic Charter prohibits national governments from interfering in their Olympic committee’s activities, the IOC then suspended Iraq’s Olympic Committee. While Iraq could still field a team if its government promises in writing to cease interfering in its Olympic committee’s activities, the prospects for this appear to be slim.

ASHER SERED: NATO’s Secretary General, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, called for greater international attention this week to the fact that Afghanistan is facing critical danger from foreign fighters and terrorists who have been trying to destabilize the country. This came on the heels of a fierce battle that occurred in the South when an Afghan army convoy was attacked by Taliban insurgents, killing 35 people. Al-Qaeda’s regional leader in Aghanistan, Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, claimed on Pakistani television that Al Qaeda was growing in strength in Afghanistan and would soon occupy the entire country.

[Music Break: “Homebase” by dZihan & Kamien]

KRISTIN CASPAR: For most of the last 3 decades, the biggest concern for the United States in the Middle East has not been Iraq, but rather Iran. Since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, the US has consistently come out in opposition to Iran’s government. The latest point of conflict has concerned Iran’s nuclear program. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s declaration that Iran had successfully enriched uranium in the spring of 2006 prompted fears of a nuclear-armed Iran that would destabilize the Middle East and threaten its neighbors. Asher Sered and Alex Imas bring us up to date on the issue.

ALEX IMAS: On May 31, 2006, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice issued a declaration that the United States would not participate in talks with Iran until the Islamic Republic agreed to suspend its program of uranium enrichment. However, last weekend, in a significant policy shift, the Administration sent undersecretary of state Nicholas Burns to Geneva, where talks concerning Iran’s nuclear program are being held. Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute argues that this decision could have negative consequences for future relations with Iran.

MICHAEL RUBIN: I oppose talks right now because 1) It’s dangerous to ever give a red line if you then reverse the red line. You may see flexibility, but by giving a red line and scrapping it, we are telling the Iranians that none of our red lines matter, that they don’t need to take them seriously, 2) the UN gave 3 near-unanimous Security Council resolutions demanding that Iran suspend enrichment. What we’re doing is sitting down and discussing whether they really are going to suspend enrichment, and by doing that, we’re unilaterally saying the UN Security Council doesn’t matter.

ALEX IMAS: On the other hand, Andrew Grotto, a senior national security analyst at the Center for American Progress, thinks the Administration’s reversal will be helpful for American diplomacy.

ANDREW GROTTO: We ought to be talking to Iranians. It won’t be easy, and it won’t necessarily produce results right away, but by talking them we can get more information about their objectives and their interests and that will produce more and better policy options.

ALEX IMAS: A separate issue is whether engaging in talks will actually yield results. Patrick Disney, legislative director for the National Iranian-American Council, is optimistic about the possibility of using negotiations to get a deal done.

PATRICK DISNEY: I think that in that short time a lot can be done with patience i think taking this first step it got the ball rolling now hopefully the US will continue to sit down with Iran and after 2, 3 or 4 rounds it won’t become as news-worthy if that makes sense that the US is actually engaging Iran and at that point I think real substantive discussions can begin.

ALEX IMAS: Grotto and Rubin, on the other hand, agree that the Iranian government is using negotiations to stall for time, waiting until President Bush is out of office to see what a McCain or Obama Administration might bring to the table. Here’s Grotto.

ANDREW GROTTO: My instinct is that the Iranians are playing for time now. Their main objective is to get through the next few months and wait and see what new administrations in the US and elsewhere might bring to the table.

ALEX IMAS: While the Iranian government may see the November election as a chance to start negotiations with a new Administration, Rubin from the American Enterprise Institute believes that whoever becomes President will make decisions based on available intelligence.

MICHAEL RUBIN: Whoever occupies the Oval Office next is going to be presented with a lot of Intel that may cause them to react differently from the statements they make now. I don’t think Obama or McCain would be so arrogant as to stick to campaign positions if evidence suggests they should act in a different way. I do think that whoever is elected next, there won’t be much difference because they will be reacting to information.

ALEX IMAS: A potential sticking point between the two sides will likely be the fact that Iran has thus far refused to admit that their nuclear program is being used for anything besides power generation. However, Grotto explains, they have not been able to convince anyone in the world community of this.

ANDREW GROTTO: No one in the US, Europe or even Russia and China believes Iran is after just nuclear energy. They haven’t fooled anyone.

ALEX IMAS: Despite these concerns, Rubin believes military action against Iran is a last-case scenario, not least because he doubts the strikes would have any effect.

MICHAEL RUBIN: It’s unlikely that the Israeli military could eliminate the nuclear threat. At best it could delay it. Iran isn’t Iraq in 1981- it’s not the Syrian nuclear program either. Iran is 6 times the size of Great Britain, 4 times the size of California, the nuclear program is dispersed all over.

ALEX IMAS: With Asher Sered, I’m Alex Imas, for War News Radio.

[Music Break: “Just You and I” by dZihan & Kamien]

ASHER SERED: When you’ve grown up in two separate countries, it’s hard not to feel your loyalties are torn between the two. Kristin Caspar spoke with three Iranian-Americans about their thoughts regarding the tenuous state of diplomatic relations between their two countries.

KRISTIN CASPAR: After a thirty year diplomatic dry spell between Iran and the United States, ties between the two countries are back in the limelight. We hear from a few Iranian-Americans about their thoughts and opinions concerning the frozen relations between the two countries. Hossein Belyadi is a 19 year old Iranian student at West Virginia University. He has been personally affected by the poor relations.

HOSSEIN BELYADI: I think one of the sanctions was they banned one of the banks in Iran so when my parents wanted to send money to the United States to me they were not able to do that. so they had to send the money to a different country for example to the UAE and all different country and then send it to the United States. It was a little bit annoying because why they did that, it is not people’s faults all these political issues going on, its the government’s fault.

HOSSEIN BELYADI: And the more interaction we have between two governments, the better for people, the better for the economy.

KRISTIN CASPAR: Doctor Mehrdad Nayumi, a 51-year old Iranian-American believes that the ensuing discussions between the United States and Iran won’t get very far, and that actions against the country will cause a divided government and people to unite.

DOCTOR MEHRDAD NAYUMI: If somebody attacks from outside, all those people are going to be united, religious or people who don’t have any religion. They love that country. So, if somebody puts pressure, they become more united; if somebody attacks, they become more united. This kind of pressure from outside doesn’t make any sense at all. Negotiation with religious people, it doesn’t make any sense.

DOCTOR MEHRDAD NAYUMI: I don’t think any kind of embassy is good. We saw 27 years ago what happened to embassy. I don’t think right to have in Iran, and since we are not going to have embassy there, why should we allow them to have one here?

KRISTIN CASPAR: Kamal Soleimani is a forty year-old Kurdish-Iranian-American studying at Columbia University. Current events in Iran are a concern for the Iranian people and for himself.

KAMAL SOLEIMANI: I’m sure everyone in Iran be here be the Kurds or other ethnic minorities or Persians, all of them pay a lot of attention to what’s going on between the US and the Iranian government. and because it’s a very important issue and some many people have concerns about what is going to happen.

KAMAL SOLEIMANI: I really dont want the Iranian regime to possess the nuclear power, not the power the nuclear weapon. I am hoping that the negotitaions or series of negotiations will help to prevent the Iranian regime from that. At the same time, there will be a more relations with Iranians and it would be a way for Iranian people to have more access to the outside.

KRISTIN CASPAR: Kamal believes the Iranian-American relations is connected to a more complex situation in the Middle East.

KAMAL SOLEIMANI: Iran fears US presence in this region and at the same time, there’s Iranian meddling in this region they are trying to resist in many ways a US presence in this region and they try to put obstacles before the American agenda in the region so you have all these problems. At the same time you have the issue of the new regime, the new president in Iran, he is not very prudent and usually makes comments and gives speeches that makes him famous for being challenging and trying to provoke the US and Israel at the same time you have the nuclear issue in Iran. So its a very complicated thing and I really dont know what will happen. As a person who likes peaceful changes in the region and especially in Iran and I hate conflict and bloodshed, so I am hoping that things will resolve in a more peaceful way and if any chance happening in Iran, I hope it will serve Iranians and others.

KRISTIN CASPAR: For War News Radio, I’m Kristin Caspar.

[Music Break: “Slowhand Hussein” by dZihan & Kamien]

KRISTIN CASPAR: Boxing is one of the most male-dominated sports in the world, but that’s not stopping Tareq Azim. The 25-year old Afghan-American has begun a movement in Afghanistan, teaching young girls how to compete both inside the ring and out. Elise Garrity has the story.

ELISE GARRITY: After graduating from Fresno State in 2004, California native Tariq Azim flew to Afghanistan, to pay homage to his grandfather General Shaw Wali – the first commanding jet fighter in the history of Afghanistan. Tareq is a fighter as well. A pro fighter, sponsored by Fairtex. While he was in Afghanistan, he trained with the Afghan men’s boxing team. At the same time he volunteered as a women’s soccer coach, where his boxing captured the interest of his players.

TAREQ AZIM: I’d get there a little earlier before the girls come to practice, and I’d train, I’d do my shadow boxing while I was running, and the girls would say “Coach, Coach what are you doing?” I’m like “Don’t worry with time, with time” like “With time what?” I said I’ll start this program.

ELISE GARRITY: Boxing is one of the most male-dominated sports in the world. And Tareq wasn’t sure that Afghanistan was ready for something like women’s boxing. In talking to tribal elders, he found that all people needed was a little persuasion.

TAREQ AZIM: I did go discuss this idea and topics with several different people just to ask: “What do you think if something like this was to happen?” and of course immediately after that they would laugh at you: “You’re crazy, this could never happen in our country” and it’s like “Why?” and then they freeze, and then you tell them why and you tell them how and you tell them the benefit, and then it paints a bigger picture. These people are really open to new ideas if you just tell them how to do the new ideas.

ELISE GARRITY: The program began informally last year. Around 100 girls were interested. That number dropped around 50 when practices began. Tareq and one other coach train the girls in Kabul’s National Stadium. Under the Taliban, this was the site of not sport, but executions. Now the room is outfitted with donated equipment from Tareq’s fight sponsor, Fairtex.

[Audio clip of Boxing practice in Kabul courtesy of Peter Getzels.]

ELISE GARRITY: Massouda Jalal ran for president of Afghanistan in 2004, and later served nearly two years as the Minister of Women’s Affairs. Now she’s the executive director of the Jalal Foundation. Her organization has worked to give women more access to sport, for example importing ping-pong tables for girls high schools in Kabul. Although there are many initiatives for better access to sports in Afghanistan, Jalal says is it not a countrywide movement.

MASSOUDA JALAL: It starts from capital and goes to the edge of the rural areas, and there is insecurity so it is the worst in terms of development.

ELISE GARRITY: Even in the most secure areas, Jalal says there can be other barriers for women.

MASSOUDA JALAL: Of course we have in Afghanistan like any other third-world country some unwanted traditional practices that is discriminating women and girls from having equal opportunities in life.

ELISE GARRITY: Cultural traditions are not holding back Tareq Azim. He’s looking to expand his program beyond the relative safety of Kabul, as far as the Pakistani border.

TAREQ AZIM: I’m actually taking the program into the eastern region of Narangahar, because I heard it was supposed to be one of the toughest challenges. I’m a competitor and I thought it would be a good idea to compete and just prove that I can do it there too, so I’ve launched it there.

ELISE GARRITY: Inside the country and out, Tareq’s audacity is turning heads. Peter Getzels is an award-winning independent filmmaker who is making a documentary about Afghanistan’s first women boxers. Last year, his wife Harriet was on a domestic flight to San Francisco when Tareq caught her eye.

PETER GETZELS: This chap sat down next to her on the airplane and he was very agitated and he was on his cell phone and his foot was shaking and he was not speaking in English and she was kind of perplexed and curious, so she thought she better make his acquaintance because she was wondering what this was all about, and started chatting with him, and very soon found out that he was this Afghan boxer who had been doing this extraordinary work with these women boxers in Afghanistan, and they started going through his pictures on his computer and talking about the whole thing.

ELISE GARRITY: When Harriet, who is also a filmmaker, told the story to her husband, Getzels was immediately interested.

PETER GETZELS: It was one of those stories and one of those things that just jumps off the page at you or just jumps out of someone’s lips and you think gosh this is an extraordinary thing. It’s the kind of film that Harriet and I like to make.

ELISE GARRITY: Filming has just begun for this small crew of Getzels, his wife Harriet, and Neil Barrett, who has previously filmed in Afghanistan. Already the story has become about more than just sports. And indeed, that was Tareq’s goal from the start.

TAREQ AZIM: My main motive behind this is establishing an avenue, an outlet of empowerment for these young girls because they want to start having titles and living like the men do in Afghanistan. They want to have high posts in the government, they want to be pilots, they want to be doctors, it’s like okay well come prove to the world you can be a man, or take the role of a man and they are.

[Audio clip of Boxing practice in Kabul courtesy of Peter Getzels.]

ELISE GARRITY: Last year, Tareq presented his program to the Afghan Olympic committee, establishing the Afghan Women’s Boxing Federation. He is now looking to create a national team, which will compete around the world. Tareq owes some of his success to his Grandfather’s good reputation in Afghanistan, which earned him a direct line of communication with the Olympic committee president. He says that many bureaucrats feel threatened by his progress.

TAREQ AZIM: They believe that if there’s instability there’s going to be more funds coming in and there’s going to be more support coming in and all these free big budget programs from USAID coming in. But if you then show stability they see “Okay we can’t let this guy work here because if he works here he’s going to show that there’s growth and there’s peace and there’s quiet and we don’t need help.”

ELISE GARRITY: Tareq says that there is also some opposition within the boxing world. Some people are jealous of how well the girl’s program has been outfitted.

TAREQ AZIM: and they would start sending threats, they’ll call my phone and say “if you go to practice today we’re gonna kill you”, they call my girls and say “if you go to practice we’re going to kill you and rape you on the way”, all sorts of …it’s really easy for me to talk about because it happens so much.

ELISE GARRITY: Under the Taliban, women in sports was strictly taboo. It became clear to Peter Getzels how much things had changed when he spoke to one former Taliban leader who knew Tareq.

PETER GETZELS: …And I spent some time talking to him trying to understand how he could square this women boxing with my perceptions about what the Taliban’s vision of women in Afghanistan could be and he felt that they could fight as Afghan women and that didn’t – as long as he felt that they were following the Sharia law etc. there didn’t seem to be any prohibition against that and there’s no reason why they couldn’t and why they couldn’t be women. I sensed that he thought it was a good thing.

ELISE GARRITY: And it has been a good thing for the girls. Getzels says that they are defying categories, both in how they are seen, and how they see themselves.

PETER GETZELS: It’s funny, I asked one girl at one point through the translator whether she considers herself to be first and foremost a girl boxer or an Afghan boxer, or herself. Who was she when she was boxing or fighting? She had a great response, she said that she was actually a sportsman.

ELISE GARRITY: Getzels says his project is in its earliest stages, and he’s keeping it open-ended. The 2012 London Olympics are one possible finale. But even if the girls could get there, women’s boxing may not be an event. Naturally, Tareq would love to see the girls succeed in international competition, but his ultimate goal is one that can only be achieved outside the ring.

TAREQ AZIM: I give them a really hard time in practice and training, a really hard time, in regards to their physical activity, and I have them utilize that with their studies, when they get stressed out reading books or studying, put the pressure on it’s just like when you’re hitting the bag and you don’t want to, you just gotta fight through it. Taking that home means more to me than anything.

ELISE GARRITY: Through the Afghan Women’s Boxing Federation, Tareq has not only made a name for himself in Afghanistan, but he has set the stage for these women boxers to do the same.

[Audio clip of Boxing practice in Kabul courtesy of Peter Getzels.]

ELISE GARRITY: For War News Radio, I’m Elise Garrity.

[Music Break: “After” by dZihan & Kamien]

ASHER SERED: After Barack Obama’s visit to the Middle East this week, a timetable for the US withdrawal from Iraq is on everyone’s minds. Sonny Sidhu spoke with three Iraqis about what they thought about the withdrawal. The issue is not as straight forward as one might think.

SONNY SIDHU: The U.S. presidential campaign was dominated this week by talk of Senator Barack Obama’s overseas tour. Senator Obama’s arrival in Iraq—said by observers to be the most crucial and fraught leg of his journey—came with particularly lucky timing. Just days earlier, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was quoted in the German magazine Der Spiegel lending support to Senator Obama’s withdrawal plan. Though Maliki’s office later offered a confusing semi-denial of his apparent endorsement of the Obama plan, by midweek Maliki had clearly and publicly expressed his support for an American withdrawal before the end of 2010. The Obama campaign was quick to capitalize on Maliki’s words as evidence that their candidate is in touch with the wishes of the Iraqi people. Indeed, Nouri al-Maliki’s increasing insistence upon specific dates for an American withdrawal is probably motivated by the similar demands of a majority of Iraqis. But as is always the case with Iraqi politics, perspectives on the issue of withdrawal hardly begin and end with the majority’s opinion. We spoke with three Iraqis to hear their opinions on an American withdrawal.

SONNY SIDHU: In Abukhaseeb, 33-year old Zia Abbas told us that U.S. troops leaving might have a positive effect on security, by robbing violent militas of their chief target—the American occupation. But Zia expressed little confidence in Iraq’s homegrown military and police apparatus.

ZIA ABBAS: If American troops withdraw on a gradual basis, it would be better than a sudden withdrawal because the Iraqi armed forces are not capable yet of taking charge of the situation.

Militias have carried guns and keep them to fight the Americans, so when the Americans leave, they will put down their guns and have no more excuse to fight. In that case the Iraqi government will be in charge of the situation and we will see no more militias as we see them nowadays.

I don’t have full trust in Iraqi army or security forces at this time. But I think in three years from now they should improve and become better than what they are now.

I welcome the withdrawal of American troops because it will solve a lot of problems. Americans came to topple the regime of Saddam Hussein. Their goal is over now. So if they stay longer, it will give excuse to militia groups to emerge. There their duty is over and they should leave. But before they do so, they must train and equip the Iraqi armed forces to replace them.

SONNY SIDHU: Reem Khuzeir of Basra is not so optimistic about Iraq’s chances for future peace in the absence of American troops. But she hardly welcomes the American presence in her country either, revealing the degree to which even those who support a more gradual withdrawal timetable still bristle at the presence of a foreign occupier.

REEM KHUZEIR: If the Americans leave, there will be more chaos than there is now. We do not care about each other. We have sectarian people, we have Shi’as, and we have Al Qaeda and terrorists and countless other problems. We cannot work on our own. If we had stayed together, all as one hand, neither Americans nor any occupier would have been able to come to Iraq in the first place.

SONNY SIDHU: Iraqis, it would seem, fear the day the last American forces leave almost as much as they look forward to it. And while it is fair to note that withdrawal is that rarest of goals for which Iraq’s Sunni and Shi’a Arabs can call with one voice, farther north, in Iraq’s Kurdish areas, popular sentiment is quite different. The majority of Iraq’s Kurds don’t want American forces to leave. Not according to a timetable, not according to conditions on the ground; not ever. 46-year old Daleel in Kirkuk explains:

DALEEL: The Kurds only have the American support here. If the Americans leave, the Arabs will attack the Kurds. Even the Kurdish parties and the Kurdish government only have America at their back.

There are lots of problems in Iraq such as national, religious, sectarian and the issue of minorities that haven’t been solved yet. These issues should be solved first. There are NGOs who work on democracy and coexistence in Iraq, but it hasn’t changed anything. Conflicts in Iraq always continue. Iraq is not like other countries, the language here is the language of gun. So there can easily be a war between Kurds and Arabs or Shias and Sunnis.

SONNY SIDHU: The presidential campaign of Senator Barack Obama has long distinguished between what it calls the old-style politics of fear and its vision for a new politics of hope. It should be careful not to oversimplify the peculiar combination of fear and hope that defines the politics of withdrawal in current-day Iraq. For War News Radio, I’m Sonny Sidhu.

KRISTIN CASPAR: That’s our show for this week.

ASHER SERED: War News Radio is a production of Swarthmore College.

KRISTIN CASPAR: Visit us online to listen to archived shows, learn more about the program, or subscribe to our podcast. That’s at warnewsradio.org.

ASHER SERED: On our site, you can also comment on this show or on our past programs.

KRISTIN CASPAR: Our behind the scenes crew for this week includes Elizabeth Hipple, Marge Murphy and Ayub Nuri. I’m Kristin Caspar.

ASHER SERED: And I’m Asher Sered. Until next time, thanks for listening.


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