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Nima Shirazi and Jon Schwarz

Nima Shirazi is an independent researcher and political analyst and an editor for the online magazine Muftah. Jon Schwarz is editor of and was Research Producer for 'Capitalism: A Love Story.'

December 3rd, 2013 11:11 AM

The Final Proof That You Can't Trust the Persians

This is complicated, but stick with us, it's worth it.

If you've been following the news about the interim agreement with Iran on their nuclear program, you've seen warnings that the United States has fallen victim to Persian trickery yet again. Numerous Middle East experticians have long cautioned that Iranians are masters of deception, because they're used to negotiating in the "Persian bazaar." Their wily charms, magic carpet prowess, and snake-handling skills are simply too much for the straight-shooting honest brokering of Western minds.

For just a few out of many, many examples, see here. It's gotten so bad even the conservative Economist objects: "Somebody has got to put a stop to this whole 'Persian bazaar' rhetorical fixation. It's ridiculous, it's ethnically offensive, and its entire purpose is to serve as a smokescreen for disastrously violent policies."

But where did this widespread American belief in Iran's unique, bazaar-driven sneakiness come from? We've looked back and believe the patient zero of this outbreak was a 1996 article in the Atlantic by Robert D. Kaplan called 'A Bazaari's World.' Ever since, references have proliferated to the "Persian bazaar" as the key to comprehending Iran.

You may not know who Kaplan is, but people fancier than you do. Kaplan's book Balkan Ghosts convinced Bill Clinton not to intervene in Bosnia; Kaplan briefed George W. Bush in 2001 and Bush was seen reading another of his books (no, it wasn't The Pet Goat, you sickos); and he's been a consultant to the Special Forces, Air Force, and Marines. Now he's "Chief Geopolitical Analyst" for Stratfor, a consulting firm that cultivates an image as a private CIA for corporate America.

Back in 1996, Kaplan learnedly explained, "The bazaaris have created a political and economic system that is a larger version of the South Tehran bazaar," and "to understand Iran … one must understand a man like Mohsen Rafiqdoost." And what you had to understand about Rafiqdoost — the son of a fruit and vegetable bazaari who went on to head Iran's "Foundation of the Oppressed and Disabled," formed when the Shah's wealth was seized — was that he was tricksy. Kaplan quoted an anonymous "analyst" who used language reminiscent of Stalin's Doctor's Plot to describe Rafiqdoost as "a mobster-trader: a dark, rootless master monopolist."

Sure, said Kaplan, Rafiqdoost's foundation was "ostensibly an operation to help the poor." But maybe, as one of the most powerful economic institutions in Iran, it was also "a financial and logistical clearinghouse for international terrorism."

Kaplan provided no evidence for his speculation. (And even if he had, it's hard to see how this would differ from the intertwining of foundations, big business and foreign policy skullduggery throughout Occidental history.) Nevertheless, Kaplan had an ace up his sleeve. He visited Rafiqdoost at the foundation's headquarters, and saw many young men working there who'd been maimed during the Iran-Iraq War. It seemed all on the up and up. But in his article's key sentence, Kaplan asks this "cynical question": 

Were the amputees who were employed inside, along with the charity work and the whole aura of do-goodism exemplified by the foundation's very name, merely façades—like the milk factory that was thought to be a cover for a chemical-weapons facility in Iraq? 

In other words: the naïve have fallen for the deceit of mideasterners before, so let's not do it again.

Kaplan was referring to the January 23, 1991 bombing of an industrial facility outside Baghdad during the first Gulf War. It was news because CNN reported Iraqi claims that it had been a baby milk factory, and broadcast footage of workers wearing lab coats that said "Baby Milk Plant." But as Newsweek revealed, this was "a ham-handed attempt to depict a bombed-out biological weapons a baby-formula factory."  Colin Powell himself, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said, "It was a biological weapons facility, of that we are sure." (Note that Kaplan got the basic assertion here wrong: no one ever said it was a chemical weapons facility.)

That's the long setup. Now here's the punchline:


This was fairly clear within a few weeks. By the time of Kaplan's article in 1996, it had already been confirmed by Saddam Hussein's son-in-law when he defected to Jordan the previous summer. And it was definitively proven after the U.S. invasion in 2003 by the CIA's Iraq Survey Group ("the Baby Milk Factory [was] destroyed by bombing in the mistaken belief that it was a key BW facility") and UN inspectors ("there is no evidence indicating that the plant was anything else but a plant to produce infant formula").

So to recap what we've learned from one of America's most prestigious journalists, writing in one of America's most prestigious magazines:

1. We blew up an Iraqi factory that made infant formula.

2. Top U.S. officials (including Colin Powell and the Bush administration's chief spokesman) claimed with totally bogus certainty that it was a biological weapons plant.

3. We all had a good laugh at Iraq for telling the truth and eagerly swallowed the U.S. government's lies.


4. Just like Iraqis, you just can't trust the Persians when they do the same thing. Or anything. Ever. Why? Deceit is part of their culture.

And here's a little lagniappe: the George W. Bush administration trotted out the biological-weapons-plant-disguised-as-baby-milk-factory story again in a January 2003 document making the case for war. This document was titled "Apparatus of Lies."

Those cunning bazaaris.

Nima Shirazi is 50% Persian and Jon Schwarz is 0% Persian, so every fourth word above is a clever ruse.

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