Brainstorming Iran: An X-Ray of Immediate History

By Al Giordano

Last night, I instigated a sit-down skull session with seven colleagues that are closely following the situation in Iran, with, between them, encyclopedic knowledge (and lived experience) of the history civil resistance movements in Iran and around the world, to see if we could agree on an objective set of facts to describe what is happening and brainstorm on what might happen next.

We agreed that our discussion would be off the record, so I’m not going to quote anybody by name. But what I can give you is my own roadmap or x-ray of what the situation in Iran is today, informed by this consultation with: 1. a prominent Iranian human rights defender, 2. an award-winning filmmaker who has spent months at a time on end reporting inside the regions of Iran, 3. a veteran strategist from the African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa that successfully ended apartheid, 4. a Polish student of social movements, 5. a Mexican journalist and civil resistance trainer, and 6 and 7. two individuals much like me: authors with intensive experience and study of civil resistance movements and community organizing.

Some of the words below are, thus, not originally mine, but I borrow them because I agree with how they portray current events.

What we can see in Iran today are two simultaneous struggles, one from below (people with legitimate grievances against their government), and one up above (a power struggle between factions).

Although many had hoped that the post-electoral struggle in Iran would be a one act play, this one seems more likely to be headed into a saga that is four or five acts long. Like many previous social movements throughout history, this has turned from a hundred yard dash into a marathon.

The dynamics of this struggle are also very different than those that have occurred in other countries. The Iranian system is kind of “a state within a state.” There is an elected part of the government – the president and parliament – but they are answerable and subject to a Supreme Leader and the various bodies of Islamic clergy that choose him and that, on paper at least, serve as a check and balance to his powers.

That dual state apparatus, although designed to maintain those in power, has caused the regime of Supreme Leader Khamenei and President Ahmadinejad – very much joined at the hip - the problem of having to defend itself on two fronts at once. If it loses control of only one of those institutions, it loses everything.

Eurasianet.com describes the dual dynamic this way:

“…hardliners now find themselves caught in a cycle of doom: they must crack down on protesters if they are to have any chance of retaining power, but doing so only causes more and more clerics to align against them.”

About ten years ago, a deep split emerged in the high clergy that, under the Iranian Constitution, has the final say over all matters and is above the elected government in the hierarchy of state. About half of those theocratic leaders came to the view that the theocratic system is not desirable, that involving itself so heavily in political institutions was making them dirty (or defiled). Although that sentiment is heavy in Qom, the religious seat of power, the objective conditions have not appeared – until now – to provoke action toward reform.

Nobody knows if reports like this one, from IBT Times UK, are accurate. But the scenario it outlines is informative as to how those theocratic councils have, under law, the power to overturn the applecart of State:

"Iran's clerical establishment is considering scrapping the position of the Supreme Leader, currently held by Ayatollah Khamenei and forcing out President Ahmadinejad according to reports.

"The country's Expediency Council and the Assembly of Experts is reported to be considering the formation of a collective leadership to replace the position of supreme leader, according to Al Arabiya, citing sources in the holy city of Qom."

Although there is presently no way to confirm or negate the accuracy of that report, the Iranian people are very well aware that those councils have that power. Their demonstrations and strikes are infused with appeals to that clergy to exercise its influence and change the course of the State. The protests are not aimed at Washington, or at the United Nations, nor at any other external power to intervene (if there's one thing that almost all Iranians agree on it is that they will never again be ruled from abroad, which is why the regime - and its clueless apologists abroad - flails so desperately to portray the protesters as dupes of CIA or other foreign manipulation; a tactic that is so far not gaining traction in any way to quell what is a distinctly Iranian revolt). The demonstrations are, instead, very shrewdly aimed at the internal dynamics inside Iran; the self-actualized protests of a people very well informed as to their indigenous opportunities for self-rule.

It is also no secret that former President Rafsanjani, himself a high cleric and influential in those councils, has been holed up in Qom lobbying his fellow clergy in an effort to bring the axe down upon the current regime.

Add to that dynamic the overlapping, and sometimes competing, security forces in Iran. The most repressive in recent days have been the Basij militias and the Revolutionary Guard, whose leadership is considered to be intensely loyal to the Khamenei-Ahmadinejad regime. (One can safely presume that the “morals police” and “security police” are in that hardliner camp, too.)

The Basiji have been the most brutal and enthusiastic repressors. There are roughly half-a-million members of this state-backed militia, and members receive special privileges from the state. It is widely considered that about half the Basij members are “free riders,” members in title only, and the other half are effective fighters. Within that second group, there are hardliners, but there are also some signs of division and disagreement with the regime’s hard line response to the protests. Ahmadinejad is himself a veteran member of the Basij and part of his power is derived from the loyalty he commands among many of them.

On the other hand, the Iranian Armed Forces have so far refrained from repressing the protesters in the streets, and according to some reports, including by journalist Robert Fisk, the military has intervened in some rare instances to protect demonstrators from the Basiji or Revolutionary Guard.

A word of caution: In China’s 1989 Tienanmen Square conflict, the military had similarly remained above the fray until the final crackdown, when troops from far away rural zones – many who speak different languages than the protesters – were trucked in to execute the final bloody massacre and crackdown. In other words, while the Iranian citizen opposition takes heart in that its Army hasn’t so far acted against it, nor has the military declared that it will not do so if events spin out of the regime’s control.

But if – Latin America style – the Armed Forces were to at any point in this conflict decide to “turn its tanks around” and point them at the regime, the current order would instantly fall.

The conflict is now moving into a Second Phase, in which massive street protests show diminishing returns (it would be near impossible to keep them massive when communications are subject to such constant censorship and interference) and different sectors of the opposition – electoral, non-electoral, students, labor, religious, etcetera – have called for a General Strike, using varying words to describe it.

There are unconfirmed reports today that a national strike is underway already, including by Iran state television which has reported that today, Tuesday, thirty percent of workers in the country have not shown up on the job.

If state media is admitting 30 percent, it is a safe bet that adherence to the strike is larger than that. It would also be very impressive because the government has warned that any citizen that participates in a strike will be fired from his and her job, or lose his or her space in the public markets. Thirty percent compliance on what is only the first day a strike would also be heartening for the resistance because some sectors – specifically a call by the Grand Ayatollah and spiritual elder Montazeri for three days of mourning beginning tomorrow, Wednesday, have not kicked in yet.

An important sector in whether a National Strike can succeed is that of the Bazaari. As the name suggests, these are the merchants that control the public markets. They also include, significantly, the country’s bankers. Among this mercantile class, there is some resentment against the Basij militiamen and other beneficiaries of government bureaucracy and benefits.

This conglomeration of overlapping and competing institutions and networks frankly reminds me a lot of the situation in Bolivia, where three regimes were made to fall in recent years, and in fast succession, before President Evo Morales was thrust to power by citizen movements; “autonomies wrapped around other autonomies,” and a situation in which any one of these sectors – bazaari, clergy, labor, military, in particular – could shut down the system virtually by itself if it acted with unity and discipline.

The regime is thus not only defending itself on two major fronts: against the citizens in the streets and the dissident clergy above. It must also be acting around the clock to keep any single one of those “autonomous networks” from acting in a unified manner.

The regime is thus spread very thin as it is being nipped at from so many directions at once. The longer this dynamic continues, the less chance the regime has to remain in control. It’s finite resources cannot indefinitely defend on all those fronts at once.

If past civil resistance struggles across the planet under authoritarian regimes are prologue, once the street demonstrations calm down the regime will likely set about arresting (or assassinating) every movement leader it can find. Tyrants usually look to “decapitate the leadership,” perhaps quite literally under the Iranian system. The movement, thus, has to find a way to decentralize if it is going to prevail.

A prolonged or indefinite General Strike would be very difficult in any land, but particularly in a country like Iran with 40 percent unemployment: the well from which to draw “replacement workers” (read: scabs) is very deep.

In such situations, the resistance has to respond to the “low intensity warfare” of the regime with its own kind of “low intensity revolution” from below (think of the Zapatistas as an example, who burrowed into their territories successfully by forming autonomous zones and governments completely independent from the Mexican state). Attainable options might include that of civil resisters taking control of a secondary city outside of Tehran (as in Oaxaca, Mexico, 2006) which would force the state apparatus to spread its security troops even more thinly, depriving the regime of the troops it needs to repress explosions of dissent in other regions and cities. Another option would be a monthly or weekly general strike; more sustainable as it weakened the economic underpinnings of the regime. In the civil resistance playbook, there are literally hundreds of options for where the resistance could take this battle, as long as it can maintain its capacity for unity, planning and discipline.

Despite the international media's obsession with a "Twitter Revolution," there are clear limits to how the Internet can serve as a communications system for the resistance. Between 29 percent and 35 percent of Iranian citizens have Internet access even under the best of conditions (at those moments when the State is not censoring or slowing it down). For it to take on a greater communications role, that one-third of Iranian society would have to organize additional communications systems of old style community organizing: pamphlets, bullhorns, door-to-door and one-on-one organization, to organize the other two-thirds of the people. Again, this is going to be difficult as the State likely begins an operation to round up anybody that it views as a leader or organizer. And the flip side of the power of these technologies is it makes the location and capture of its users easier through state surveillance.

Another interesting dynamic is that those in charge of the regime lived through and were active in the 1978-79 revolution (as were those like Rafsanjani and Mousavi who are engaged in the power struggle up above against the regime). The moves made so far by the Khamenei-Ahmadinejad regime smack of a certain paranoia that 1979 could repeat itself, and seem designed to head it off at the pass. An example of that is how the families of the martyrs created over the past week – including that of the young woman named Neda who was assassinated by Basiji sniper fire and become a global cause celebre – have been ordered by state forces not to hold public funerals for their fallen sons and daughters (in 78-79, the funerals of martyrs became the loci of protest marches).

Likewise, the Mousavi electoral opposition, as well as other key sectors like students and labor, have very much echoed the slogans and tactics of 1978: “Allah O Akbar” and “Marg Bar Dictator” (“God is Great” and “Death to the Dictator” being the renovated slogans of that era).

But here’s where it gets interesting: about 75 percent of the Iranian citizenry today was born after 1979. While the elders of the resistance have the experience of having lived through and won a revolution, and their experience is very valuable to the opposition, the wild card in this thing is the young people. This is especially true when it comes to communications systems – Internet, cell phones, etcetera – in which the side that has the youth has the capacity to remain one step ahead of the regime in the speed at which it communicates among its ranks and to the rest of the Iranian population and to the world. (Just as most aging folks need a teenager to figure out how to work the remote on the DVD player, all revolutionaries need them to do the same on a societal scale.)

It is evident that the youth of Iran are overwhelmingly in favor of change and if one had to set Vegas odds on whether the regime can prevail, the odds would be stacked against it in large part because the nation’s youth have had it and are energized to sustain the “five act play,” if necessary, to win control of their lives and country.

Watch, listen and learn. What the Iranian resistance is accomplishing will, soon enough, apply to your country, too.

Update: From Iraj Omidvar:

A message on Rooyeh.com says that it has been shut down because the presidency's legal department has filed a complaint against the manager of the site and its workers (something to that effect; it's not very clear exactly what is wrong). The newest news item on the site is from Saturday:

Meeting Between Rafsanjani and Some High Ranking Clergy in Qom

According to a Rooyeh reporter, Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, Head of the Assembly of Experts, met with some of the high-ranking clergy of Qom and the plenipotentiary representative of Ayatollah Sistani.

An informed source in an interview with Rooyeh said, "Hashemi Rafsanjani in the meeting with the high ranking clergy recounted memories of the early revolution and the method of resolving problems by the great leader of the revolution.

This source who emphasized not to have his (?) name divulged added: "It seems half of the representatives of the Assembly of Experts are leaning towards forming a 'leadership council'."

He added: "What can be cited as a summary of these meetings is that the reasonable solution is the resignation of Mahmud Ahmadinejad."

He said: "Leader of the revolution is the father and leader of all people and not just of a special group. But it seems like he would like to be the father and leader of a special group."

In answer to the Rooyeh reporter's question of whether the Assembly of Experts will meet in Qom said, "Please permit me to be excused from answering this question. Be confident that the news of the meeting or not meeting [of the assembly] will be announced shortly."

Update II: This next item is also interesting because of the geopolitical strategic importance of the Kurd regions (see map) that stretch the Iran-Turkey border, since it is through that route that Iranian communications reach the rest of the world and vice versa. With the Kurds lined up with the resistance, it's going to become now even more difficult for the Iranian regime to shut down the information flow:

Iraj Omidvar translates and summarizes for The Field:

According to Gooya citing Rava News, the people of Iranian Kurdistan have begun a strike in support of the people's movement for freedom.

In response to calls for a one-day strike in Kurdistan by human rights organizations, student groups, unions, and political associations, today, Tuesday, the people of Kurdistan, in support of the people of Iran, have not gone to work.

The reporter of Rava News from Saghez, the second largest city of Kurdistan, reports that despite government warnings, 90% of the shops in the bazaar and other public places are closed, and there are plans for a calm civil protest in one of the city's main squares.

Add Kurdistan to the mounting problems of the Iranian regime: a state increasingly surrounded from all sides - ideologically and geographically - with long-afflicted and diverse forces converging to upturn it.

 

 

Comments

Many Thanks

Excellent information, anaylsis and reminders: the very reason I support the Fund for Authentic Journalism.  

"Watch, listen and learn.  What the Iranian resistance is accomplishing will, soon enough, apply to your country too."

I read: "Public Option". 72% of the People agree. Big Corp Lobby bunch and their paid politicians say no.

Yes We Can.

Looking forward to your next post. 

Sent this over to: 

http://my.barackobama.com/page/community/post/obamaforamerica/gGGGXP/com...

@Lorie The Health

@Lorie

The Health Care/Public Option battle is the current fight that is going on, but I can't quiesce that voice that keeps telling me that Al is hinting at something completely different.

 

He keeps saying that for quite some time.

Refuting the pro-Ahmadinejad 'left'

Hey Al,

Thought you might get a kick out of this. Louis Proyect totally dismantles the 'left-wing' Ahmadi cheerleaders. Quotes from Lenin and Trotsky and everything! It's quite a piece.

http://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2009/06/22/a-velvet-revolution-in-iran/

What about a surprise giant march in Qom?

That would have the benefit of being in a different city, and it would force the regime to use their methods of brutality in front of the eyes of the clerics.

WOW

Comprehensive analysis Al!!!!

Thank you very much.

@ Sebastian

Thanks for the comment, Sebastian.  I am thrilled to hear that there is "more to Al's picture, than meets the eye...hey hey, my, my."  neil young

Al has a way of nudging you toward your organizing abilities. For me, the healthcare issue was and is my #1 priority with this Administration, at this time.  Many of the people who were active in the campaign are active at this moment with this issue.

That's the thing about Al.  I had the wonderful privilege of being with some amazing citizen journalists/organizers from all walks of life, different nations, religions/no religion...

As I told fellow camper, Ben, the time with everyone was ageless.  So many were actively working "in the field" and came because a title drew them:  Organizing the President: Organizing Change in the Age of Obama.  

Organizer and citizen journalist are the courses of study I am on, along with many others who give their $$ to learn and put into practice that knowledge, here at The Field and out in the field each day. 

I love living history.  

Edit:  Just read the updates from Al.  I appreciate the effort to keep us informed.  

Bazaar Strike

Posted at http://niacblog.wordpress.com/, a message from Khatami that appeared Mousavi's facebook page. An excellent strategy for shutting down the bazaar, IMO: = = = = = = = = = On Tuesday morning, from 9am all of us all over Iran will make our way towards the markets (bazaar). If they try to block us the market will shut down, and if they don’t then we will create such a swarm that the market will still close down. If the telephones/mobiles are cut off from first thing in the morning business will be disrupted all over the country and markets will close, and with our movement towards the bazaar with the goal of closing it down we will gather others to walk with us. Bring your children too and very calmly – without shouting slogans – without wearing green – we will look as though we are going shopping but we won’t buy anything and will think only of shutting down the market, and will not leave any traces of ourselves. We will not even show the victory sign with our hands… under no circumstances … Think only of victory and bring children throughout all the cities in Iran without slogans, without slogans, without slogans, calmly, calmly, calmly without green, without conflict. If someone interferes, don’t engage in conflict because in appearance we are a crowd shopping, there’s nothing to fear and everyone will come – no clashes, no bloodshed, no slogans, no conflict. If they try and stop us we will return home easily because our goal is to shut the market down not protest. If they throw tear gas the market will be closed down, we are clever and we won’t engage in conflict and any conflict on the part of the security forces will cause chaos in the market and it will close, but we will not engage in conflict. We will calmly think of victory and the market will either close from our swarms or from a lack of activity. Either way we are the winners. Moosavi needs your support and needs your leadership to make sure that this goes ahead on time.

who needs phone networks?

A mobile phone is more than a phone or internet accessing device.

It's gradually becoming part of the Personal Area Network.

tcp/ip is an asynchronous protocol, and agnostic about transmission medum.

how about Ip over bus network?

http://www.firstmilesolutions.com/news.php

everyone has a mobile phone. it has storage, data capture, and a transmission capability that isn't dependant on someone elses backbone. Bluetooth or wifi.

http://atheism.about.com/b/2005/08/12/saudis-flirt-via-bluetooth.htm

I can see some cross between the packet based poney express, and a messaging protocol, that works to transmit data across mobile phones.

it then becomes almost impossible to shut down.

From a nerwork perspective every person becomes a node and a router in a totally atomised decentralised communication network.

 

Amazing summary Al --

I particularly love:

"

Watch, listen and learn. What the Iranian resistance is accomplishing will, soon enough, apply to your country, too."

Yep -- I AM and I hope many others are too.

 

I see our healthcare fight as an uprising and a revolution of sorts.  We have to realign our healthcare to serve the interests of the many, not to make a minority rich. 

Making that change however is going to be painful, take many steps with ebs and flows and will not be just one battle.  I would even argue that aside from administrative issues, the real fight, the real change will come from the people and NOT top-down from the White House or Congress like many in the media seem to think.  They think that the battle is with Obama.  So WRONG.  The battle is with US and we have to raise our awareness and get involved in a way that enhances our power and visibility over the next months...

I am so proud of the Iranian people and so appreciate their energizing OUR "uprising" right here in the good ol USA!

You are only going shopping

I love this update from Nico Pitney at HuffPo who's of course been one of the must-read sites throughout all of this

10:47 AM ET -- Strategy for a national strike. An Iranian on Twitter who often communicates Mousavi's strategic efforts describes one part of his supporters' plan to carry out a national strike.

Mousavi - We will not expend any more energy talking to the Gov in the streets - we must change course


Mousavi - From Today every morning at 9am WE ALL travel to Tehran Bazaar - whatever reaction from Gov - Bazaar will close

Mousavi - stop all work and travel with friends & family toward Tehran Bazaar every day at 9am

Mousavi - do NOT wear green - dress normally - bring your children - if stopped u are ONLY going shopping

Mousavi - the objective is to bring Tehran to standstill - millions of people go shopping but NOBODY SHOPPING

Mousavi - There is nothing to fear - if asked - YOU ARE ONLY GOING SHOPPING

Mousavi - no matter what the reaction of the Gov - the Bazaar will close or be at standstill

@Al and whoever

This twitterer has organised a meet up in NY about planning/tools to help iran and help each other in these sorts of situations. Thought I'd pass it on if anyone here is interested.

"Brian Conley

BaghdadBrianupdate, #nyc2iran meeting of geeks about #iranelection has been changed to 7PM TONIGHT at blip.tv hq please retweet!

but this is the latest one: "BaghdadBrian#nyc2iran gathering of geeks will be at 7pm-407 Broome St, 5th floor #iranelection attendance is off record but pls RT time/location

 

Fascinating "Brain-Storming" Summary.

Thanks for sharing your "brain-storming" sessions.  It's great to hear the ideas of those who are really knowledgeable about Iran.

Their ideas certainly contrast with the simplistic, pseudo-leftist thinking that declares its support for Almadinejad because he comes from a working class family and supports Hezbollah and the Palestineans.

Almadinejad is part and parcel of a reactionary theocratic dictatorship, which has direct control over 80% of the government and veto power over the other 20%.

In contrast, the millions who took to the streets in Iran to oppose the obviously fraudulent vote count and violations of even the Constitution's minimal electral contest procedures, are comprised of different forces which go way beyond support for the mildly reformist Mousovi.

The real nature of Iran's current so-called revolutionary government can be seen in its treatment of women. And that is why they are in the forefront of the opposition movement.

Under the theocracy's repressive legal system, which Almadinejad enthusiastically supports, women are deprived of the right to make all major decisions concerning their lives. Their husbands or fathers determine whether they can go to school, work, live, marry, travel abroad and even care for their children. 

No doubt the opposition includes some religious leaders who are seeking to increase their individual power, as there are those capitalists who seek to privatize the economy, but they are not the motive force controlling the millions of Iranians, workers, farmers, students, and especially the women, who are in the streets demanding, in common, an honest democracy. 

Many in the opposition are fighting for an end to the theoracy, others for economic improvements for the working class, others for true socialism.  Not a single one of them is putting their life on the line in order to wear Armani suits or more lipstick.

There are many, many different colored threads in the cloth which is this Iranian revolt.  Socialists need to recognize those different forces and support those which are the most progressive.  Almadinejad is by no stretch of the imagination, one of those progressive forces.

 

 

 

 

 

Ah to be a fly on the wall

During that skull session.

Thank-you for sharing yours and your colleague's insight.

There are so many layers in this Iranian resistance it has been amazing to watch it unfold.

"Watch, listen and learn. What the Iranian resistance is accomplishing will, soon enough, apply to your country, too."

 

Nothing worthwhile comes quickly or without struggle. The Iranian resistance are showing us what tenacity really means.

 

The Big Picture

That is a great link, Slaney. Who could put it better than Trotsky: "The policy of the proletariat is not at all automatically derived from the policy of the bourgeoisie, bearing only the opposite sign." Neither should today's comfortable leftists residing in powerful nations simply look at which side is likely to have CIA/Mossad support and condemn it. And we will forgive Trotsky for his old-school terminology, but if we are still harboring century-old myths about the "proletariat" as a monolithic force that is always clear on what its interests are, well, how can you even argue with that kind of thinking.

With the complete demonization of Ahmadinejad in the Western press to the point of making war with Iran seem absolutely inevitable (as well as the exploitation of a few photo ops and trade deals with Chávez to try to make the two out to be ideologically identical) many took up the unenviable task of trying to counter that propaganda. I think that was an important thing to do. But things have changed a lot in two weeks. The impetus for "defending" Ahmadinejad should have been the prevention of devastating war, not a real desire to secure his power over Iran.  This is a man who has imprisoned countless socialists and other dissidents!

Yes, the protesters skew disproportionately middle-class, and yes, the CIA and possibly Mossad probably had some role in all this (though if that's the case, they are along for the ride, not running the show). But I think harping on that fact is missing the bigger picture. To give one example, as someone who cares deeply about the struggle for Palestinian freedom, the actual policies of the Israeli government and the power of the rightwing and the settlers are what truly concern me. Ahmadinejad has been a huge part, perhaps the most important, of the resurgence of Netanyahu and the silencing of so much debate on the occupation.

Many of Netanyahu’s cheerleaders openly advocate war with Iran and drool over the idea of an Israeli “first strike,” talk which naturally rallies Iranians around their gung-ho president. It goes without saying that these folks and Ahmadinejad mutually feed off each other. And so the heightened fear of Iran under Ahmadinejad is having a direct impact on Palestinian suffering and the ever shrinking possibility of reconciliation and a just final settlement between Palestine and Israel.  A lot of the damage is irreversible, but if Ahmadinejad and his crazy talk are taken out of the equation by a democratic movement of his own people, that would be a huge roadblock removed and a huge crutch for the Israeli far right kicked out from under it. If getting there means temporarily sharing the trench with Mossad, I would happily make that compromise. And to the men and women risking their lives for their ideals and their futures in the streets, provoked and controlled by no one, the question is even more irrelevent.

(Edited post-posting).

Nice one

I liked the article. It's nice to find something more detailed than the usual mass media "anti-government protestors", as though there are only two sides. Having a better appreciation for the number of forces in play certainly helps my appraisal of the situation. As for the pro-socialist comments, I'll respectfully disagree. I see this analysis as more beneficial to the cause of freedom than socialism.

Nice Piece, Al. I lived in

Nice Piece, Al. I lived in Iran for five years, and have found recent coverage very frustrating. And it's not just to do with restrictions and censorship. As you have discovered, you need to rely on people who know what they're talking about, and even for them, what's going on now is a puzzle. Iranians, however, know exactly what's going on, even if they don't have internet access.

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About Al Giordano

Biography

Publisher, Narco News.

Reporting on the United States at The Field.

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