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October 30, 2008

Clearly Not a Carpet-Bazaar…

Hooman Majd, author of The Ayatollah Begs to Differ, unleashed a stinging rebuke in the Huffington Post yesterday to Thomas Friedman’s New York Times op-ed, calling the columnist’s conclusions “offensively colonialist and racist generalizations.”

The piece by Friedman was an explanation as to why he believes the next US president will have more leverage in dealing with Iran. Essentially, he said that the falling price of oil gives the US badly needed leverage over Iran. He drew largely on comments made by Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, characterizing negotiations with Iran as similar to bargain shopping in the bazaar. He quoted Sadjadpour saying, “there is never a price tag on any carpet. The dealer is not looking for a fixed price, but the highest price he can get — and the ‘Iran price’ is constantly fluctuating depending on the price of oil.”

Hooman Majd is a writer for several publications including the New York Times, GQ and the New Yorker and often writes about Iranian affairs as in his latest book. He criticized Friedman for being closed-minded on Iranian affairs and for oversimplifying the facts–and rightfully so.  Speaking of the claim that Iranian motivations stem from some “carpet bazaar mentality,” Majd wrote:

[I]t is far from the truth, and if anyone in an incoming U.S. administration is inclined to believe it, they will be in for a rude surprise if and when the U.S. and Iran eventually sit down to negotiate. Carpets may be Iran’s best-known export after oil, and there is a section of the Tehran bazaar devoted to carpet sellers, but carpet salesman are viewed by Iranians much as we view car salesmen, or used-car salesman, hardly a view we would want the Iranians to consider representative of our politicians. (On second thoughts….)

Hooman Majd and Karim Sadjadpour are essentially colleagues–both are respected Iran scholars in a relatively limited field–which is why this (heated) debate is so interesting. The conclusions they draw about the state of Iranian affairs are strikingly different and beg the question: Are they even talking about the same country?

Majd criticized Friedman’s lack of understanding on the Iranian situation mainly due to his contention that oil was the sole indicator for Iranian politics and influence. This ignores Iran’s role as a regional hegemon with significant non-oil interests in the region.

Blatant oversimplifications, racist generalizations, and a real lack understanding of the US’ position vis-a-vis Iran in the Middle East… To be honest, I think Friedman is wrong on this one.  The US hasn’t just gained leverage against Iran since the price of oil has plummeted; we’ve had leverage on Iran.  Iran wants US recognition, foreign investment, an easing of sanctions, and a promise not to pursue regime change.  The list goes on. Now that’s leverage.

If you ask me, it’s unfortunate that Mr. Friedman is as influential on this subject as he is.  I would much prefer someone like Majd to have a soundboard as effective as the New York Times editorial page with which to set the record straight.

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