The Parthian Shot

The Parthian Shot Illustrated on a Hephthalite Bowl

Listening to the Current Occupant bluster in an all-caps tweet against Iran, I thought back o how, in the past, the Persians managed to flummox their enemies. And the Orange Baboon was not even in the top ten. As great as the extent of the Roman Empire was, it could never count Parthia (Persia) as one of its victims. According to Wikipedia,

Lasting over 680 years, the Roman–Persian Wars, if taken together, form the longest conflict in human history. Despite this, the frontier remained largely stable. A game of tug of war ensued: towns, fortifications, and provinces were continually sacked, captured, destroyed, and traded. Neither side had the logistical strength or manpower to maintain such lengthy campaigns far from their borders, and thus neither could advance too far without risking stretching its frontiers too thin. Both sides did make conquests beyond the border, but in time the balance was almost always restored. The line of stalemate shifted in the 2nd century AD: it had run along the northern Euphrates; the new line ran east, or later northeast, across Mesopotamia to the northern Tigris. There were several substantial shifts further north, in Armenia and the Caucasus. Although initially different in military tactics, the armies of both sides gradually adopted from each other and by the second half of the 6th century they were similar and evenly matched.

The first Roman-Persian/Parthian conflict began in 66 BC, in the time of the Roman Republic. The Romans and Persians did not call it quits until the Islamic conquests put an end to the Sasanian Empire and deprived the Byzantine Empire of much of its southern territories.

You Can Bet the Iranian Generals Know Their Country’s History of Conflict with the West

Perhaps the one symbol these conflicts have left with the oft-defeated Roman legionaries is a tactic known as the Parthian Shot. While appearing to retreat, Parthian light horsemen turned around in their saddles while appearing to retreat and shooting down the advancing Romans and shooting them down with arrows. This requires considerable skill, as the Parthian light horse did not have stirrups and had to guide their mounts strictly by the pressure of their legs.

So rage as the Twitterati will, I suggest that they be wary of the “retreating” enemy. I keep thinking of the advice the Delphic Oracle gave to King Croesus: “If you cross the river, a great empire will be destroyed,” And so it was—but it was his own empire. I believe the winning side were the Persians.


What, No Hajj?

Saudi Arabia Has Halted All Flights To/From Iran

Saudi Arabia Has Halted All Flights To/From Iran

It is a mandatory religious duty for all Muslims, at least once in their life, to make a pilgrimage to Mecca. Now that Saudi Arabia and Iran are on the outs, the Saudis have forbidden all flights linking their two countries. This alone has the potential of leading to further nastiness. Admittedly, Iranian pilgrims can still go by boat (and risk being robbed by Somali pirates) or by land (and risk being robbed by bandits).

I cannot help but think that the real reason for all this nastiness is the conflict in Yemen between Shi’a rebels (called the Houthis) and the Saudis and their allies. In the end, the Saudis may think now is the time to rid themselves of the Shi’a menace once and for all.

Now what is this Sunni/Shi’a split all about? According to the BBC:

In early Islamic history, the Shia were a movement – literally “Shiat Ali” or the “Party of Ali”. They claimed that Ali was the rightful successor to the Prophet Muhammad as leader (imam) of the Muslim community following his death in 632.

Ali was assassinated in 661 after a five-year caliphate that was marred by civil war. His sons, Hassan and Hussein, were denied what they thought was their legitimate right of accession to the caliphate.

Hassan is believed to have been poisoned in 680 by Muawiyah, the first caliph of the Sunni Umayyad dynasty, while Hussein was killed on the battlefield by the Umayyads in 681. These events gave rise to the Shia concept of martyrdom and the rituals of grieving.

There are three main branches of Shia Islam today—the Zaidis, Ismailis and Ithna Asharis (Twelvers or Imamis). The Ithna Asharis are the largest group and believe that Muhammad’s religious leadership, spiritual authority and divine guidance were passed on to 12 of his descendants, beginning with Ali, Hassan and Hussein.

The 12th Imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi, is said to have disappeared from a cave below a mosque in 878. Ithna Asharis believe the so-called “awaited imam” did not die and will return at the end of time to restore justice on earth.

In other words, the roots of the conflict go all the way back 1,400 years and show no signs of slackening.

It’s a sobering thought that we, who cannot even pronounce the name “Muawiyah,” may be affected in some way by this stramash.

The Intimate Enemy

Sunni Anti-Shi’a Propaganda

Sunni Anti-Shi’a Propaganda

In a 1997 lecture entitled “The Origin of Satan in Christian Tradition,” Religious Historian Elaine Pagels writes about how the character of Satan morphed over the centuries from a messenger of God’s to His enemy:

So there are many stories about Satan’s origin; but what struck me about them is this. Diverse as they are, whichever version you choose, they all agree on one thing: that this greatest and most dangerous enemy did not originate (as we might have expected) as an outsider, an alien, or stranger. Satan is no distant enemy: on the contrary, he is an “intimate enemy”—one’s closest relative, older brother, or trusted colleague—the kind of person on whose goodwill and loyalty the well-being of family and society depends, but one who turns unexpectedly hostile, jealous, and dangerous.

So it is not the total outsider whom we hate, but the heretic—one whose belief is close to ours except on some details which to some will seem trivial. Such were the Arians and Nestorians in the early days of the Christian Church. And such are the Sunni and Shi’a over the last 1,400 years.

With the execution of a prominent Shi’a cleric (Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr), Saudi Arabia has earned the undying hatred of Iran. For many centuries, there has been a small Shi’a minority in the Eastern portion of the Arabian peninsula, and the executed sheikh was their religious leader. Shown below is a map illustrating the distribution of the two sects in the Middle East:

Percent Shi’a in the Middle East and North Africa

Percent Shi’a in the Middle East and North Africa

This comes at a bad time for Saudi Arabia, as the sharp decline in the price of oil is about to have dire consequences in the ability of the kingdom to provide benefits for its favored citizens. The price of gas has jumped 50%, water and electricity are going up, and the country’s safety net is in danger.

So what should we do? I think this is a good time to put our hands firmly in our pockets and start whistling until we see who wins, King Kong or the Dinosaur.

A Murky Business

Argentine Special Prosecutor Alberto Nisman

Argentine Special Prosecutor Alberto Nisman

It all started on the morning of July 18, 1994. A Renault utility truck packed with explosives blew sky high in front of Buenos Aires’s Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA) killing 85 Jews and injuring 300 more. This set off an investigation that involved three Argentinian presidents (Carlos Menem, Néstor Kirchner, and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner), Hezbollah (who claimed to have set off the bomb), Iran (who sponsors Hezbollah), and several other countries besides (including Venezuela and the United States). During most of the last 21 years, Alberto Nisman was involved in the investigation as a prosecutor and was intent on skewering Iran.

Until 2013, the Argentine government was behind him. Then it changed sides and decided to not pursue the case. That left the outraged Nisman determined to go after the government. He promised to have a big show and tell on Monday, January 18, of this year before the Congress. Sometime that night, however, he was killed with a rickety old 22 caliber pistol lent to Nisman by his computer technician, Diego Lagomarsino.

At first, it was suspected that it was death by suicide, though there were no gunpowder on his hands. Eventually, President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner decided it was murder. The question was: Who killed him? Was it the nefarious Secretaría de Inteligencia de Estado (SIDE), which has been suspected of numerous crimes under the Videla dictatorship? Was it Iran and Hezbollah, which had tired of Nisman’s relentless charges over two decades? Was it Diego Lagomarsino, whose gun it was? At this point, it’s difficult to exonerate anyone.

Nisman himself was a bit strange. According to an article entitled “Death of a Prosecutor” by Dexter Filkins in the July 20 issue of The New Yorker:

In the years that Nisman presided over the AMIA investigation, he became a famous man. Separated from his wife, he was a fixture at Buenos Aires’ night clubs and sometimes appeared in gossip magazines with various girlfriends. He relished his image as a lone prosecutor going after terrorists in the Middle East. With a large staff and a big budget, he cultivated relationships with American intelligence analysts, conservative think-tank experts, and the staff of Senator Marco Rubio, who kept track of his work. He rented a luxury apartment in the chic neighborhood of Puerto Madero and indulged a passion for windsurfing.

Since January, Nisman’s death has been page one news in a country whose judicial system reminds one of Kafka’s The Trial. Even in today’s issue of the Buenos Aires Herald, there’s a story about ex-President Carlos Menem offering more information about the AMIA bombing.



When the U.S. Downed a Commercial Jet

Not One of Our Great Moments in Military History

Not One of Our Great Moments in Military History

The date was July 3, 1988. The United States Navy was engaged in the Persian Gulf protecting oil shipping lanes. Around that time, there had been several hostile engagements with both the Iraqi and Iranian forces. Shipping through the Straits of Hormuz had to cross into territory claimed as Iranian waters in order to avoid running aground.

The USS Vincennes, a guided missile cruiser patrolling the Straits, picked up a signal from an aircraft that it misidentified as coming from an F-14 Tomcat, of which there were several in Iran’s air force. It let fly an SM-2MR surface-to-air missile. Instead of an F-14 Tomcat, the missile brought down an Airbus 300B2-200 flying a commercial flight as Iran Air 655 between Bandar Abbas, Iran and Dubai. On board were 290 persons, including 66 children and 16 crew. All persons on board died.

Did the United States apologize to Iran? According to Wikipedia:

In 1996, the United States and Iran reached “an agreement in full and final settlement of all disputes, differences, claims, counterclaims” relating to the incident at the International Court of Justice. As part of the settlement, the United States did not admit legal liability but agreed to pay US $61.8 million ($92.9 million today), amounting to $213,103.45 ($320,446 today) per passenger, in compensation to the families of the Iranian victims.

Iran Stamp Commemorating the Incident

Iran Stamp Commemorating the Incident

Although flight numbers are usually retired after a prominent airline disaster, Iran Air still has a flight 655. I guess they want to keep the villainy of the Great Satan fresh in their minds.

As to the Malaysian Airliner Flight MH17 shot down over Eastern Ukraine, I highly recommend that you read Patrick Smith’s posting on the subject in his Ask the Pilot blog in preference to listening to the mainstream media pundits bloviating about unsupportable conspiracy theories.


Hold That Line!

There Has Been Relatively Little Change Since WWI

There Has Been Relatively Little Change Since After WWI

Take a quick look at this map. Given that the Middle East is such a volatile and combative part of the world, it is amazing that so little has changed since the pacts after the First World War. At that time, there were quite a few changes: Several countries that formerly belonged to the Ottoman Empire were carved out of desert because the British and French wanted it so. The British and French are long gone, but the lines they drew still hold (as of 1:30 p.m. today anyway).

The biggest change on the map was the creation of all the independent “-stans” after the Soviet Union fell apart around 1992. Other changes include the creation of Pakistan in 1946 (though its eastern part is now Bangladesh) and the union of the former British colony of Aden with Yemen. Also Cyprus is now independent (but divided into Greek and Turkish halves).

Probably the only country whose boundary was not drawn by the European powers is Pakistan. Far from stable, however, the Islamabad government is currently facing three insurgencies: the Taliban, the Belochis, and in Karachi (from several ethnic groups). They also risk war with Iran because of the Belochi insurgency and with China over helping to radicalize in Uighurs in China’s Xinjiang province.

Islamic populations in general seem to be divided into two groups:

  1. Apprehensive, politically ineffectual people who just want to get on with their lives, and
  2. Jihadists who want to conquer the world and introduce Sharia law everywhere.

In the near future, it seems that the Jihadists will be in the ascendant. That tendency will be reversed eventually because radicals who want to blow themselves up are generally not effective in creating a strong country. I suspect that soon the map boundaries will change until they are unrecognizable from the above illustration. Also, I suspect that there will be a lot more countries: several in Iraq, Pakistan, and Syria. Even tiny Lebanon is split between Sunni, Shi’ite, Druze, and Maronite Christian enclaves. Talk about Balkanization!

I think the best thing for the United States to do is to disengage from any military activity in the region: We always end up arming the wrong people. (It would have helped if someone in the Pentagon knew Arabic.) Although extraction of oil through fracking is dangerous, it would be nice if we were independent of the Middle East for our oil needs. Then we could just let them kill one another and go tsk-tsk while shaking our heads.

One exception: Look at what’s sitting right in the center of that map. The most stable country of the group is Iran. I think we should be friends with them and let bygones be bygones. But no military intervention, please!


Sunday Movie Interlude

Ben Affleck, Star and Director of ARGO

It’s so rare for me now to see a film that is currently playing—and by the look of it, it’s nearing the end of its run—that I thought I would write about it. What makes it doubly rare is that both Martine and I liked the film.

When I asked her as we walked out of the theater whether she liked the film, Martine answered that she thought it was all made up. Then she mentioned she knew one of the six people who worked at the embassy who escaped imprisonment by the Ayatollah Khomeini’s Revolutionary Guard because her real name was used in the film: It was Cora Lijek, one of Martine’s algebra classmates from her high-school days in West Long Branch, New Jersey.

When we got home from the theater, we looked up the story of the Teheran embassy hostage crisis: Sure enough, Martine saw that the story of the six who hid out at the Canadian ambassador’s residence really happened. You can see for yourself by clicking on Wikipedia. The article there actually names names and gives details of which embassy employees were captured, which released early by the Ayatollah, and which escaped by hiding out as guests of the Canadian government.

As for the film itself, it was strictly an edge-of-the-seat tale, with a liberal admixture of humor, especially in the scenes with John Goodman and Alan Arkin as filmmakers. Ben Affleck plays the role of Tony Mendez, a CIA specialist in getting people across borders. He concocts a seemingly far-fetched idea of pretending to be a Canadian film crew filming a sci-fi fantasy epic in Iran and providing the six escapees with fake Canadian passports and new identities as members of the film crew scouting out locations for the upcoming production of a film to be called Argo.

The actual film called Argo is definitely worth seeing. If Affleck has any more films like this in his plans, he may well become one of our more interesting directors, of which there are so few in Hollywood.