Moon of Alabama Brecht quote
December 18, 2011

The CSM Drone Exclusive Does Not Make Sense

The Christian Science Monitor had an Exclusive story, Iran hijacked US drone, says Iranian engineer, which several people here have linked to.

The story by Scott Peterson does not make sense. It says that the Iranians jammed the Remote Piloted Vehicle's satellite control channel and then spoofed GPS signals to make the RPV believe it was near the airstrip it came from:

The “spoofing” technique that the Iranians used – which took into account precise landing altitudes, as well as latitudinal and longitudinal data – made the drone “land on its own where we wanted it to, without having to crack the remote-control signals and communications” from the US control center, says the engineer.

There is yet no known drone operational that is capable to do an autonomous landing. This for very good reason. A drone does not know if the runway it wants to land on is clear. It is not aware of other air traffic around and the algorithms to correct for weather effects (wind shears) are quite complicate. An autonomous landing drone would be a serious danger for the people around the airbase it is supposed to land on. It is therefore very unlikely that the RQ-170 downed in Iran had an auto-land feature.

Indeed:

It is a common misconception that U.S.-based operators are the only ones who "fly" America's armed drones. In fact, in and around America's war zones, UAVs begin and end their flights under the control of local "pilots." Take Afghanistan's massive Bagram Air Base. After performing preflight checks alongside a technician who focuses on the drone's sensors, a local airman sits in front of a Dell computer tower and multiple monitors, two keyboards, a joystick, a throttle, a rollerball, a mouse, and various switches, overseeing the plane's takeoff before handing it over to a stateside counterpart with a similar electronics set-up. After the mission is complete, the controls are transferred back to the local operators for the landing. Additionally, crews in Afghanistan perform general maintenance and repairs on the drones.

This why I have suggested that the Iranians must have gained control over the local control channel:

What the Iranians seem to have done is to take over the drone's line-of-sight control. This after electronically disrupting its satellite link. Disrupting the satellite link alone would not be enough as the drone would then have followed some preprogrammed action like simply flying back to where it came from. With the line-of-sight control active a satellite link disruption would not lead to a preprogrammed abort.

The control connections to the drone may well be encrypted. But encryption always takes time and, landing a plane, a slow reaction to input (latency) is not what one wants. It is therefore likely that the encryption, at least at the latency sensitive local control channel, is only minimal encrypted if at all. Therefore:

We can reasonably assume that the Iranians have some station near Kandahar Airport that is listening to all military radio traffic there. They had four years to analyze the radio signaling between the ground operator and such drones. Even if that control signal is encrypted pattern recognition during many flights over four years would have given them enough information to break the code.

The story someone fed to the CSM, be it by the CIA or an Iranian spy service, is wrong. Things can not have happened the way it describes them. One can only guess who's interest is served in publishing that make-believe story.

Aviation journalist David Cenciotti at The Aviatonist agrees with me that the story is false. But he thinks the drone crashed or had a parachute to land.

In my opinion the RQ-170 is unlikely to have a parachute (which would have to be quite big for this 10,000 pound vehicle) and any unplanned landing in the mountainous Iran would have created more damage than is visible in the available pictures.

My two weeks old hypothesis that the local control channel was hijacked by the Iranians and used to land the drone (with some superficial damage) still seems to be the most plausible explanation. By now I find this especially plausible because no other explanation I have read so far, all quoting experts and military sources, have failed to mention even the possibility of a local control channel hack. By now that seems to be a too obvious avoidance of that possibility in the analysis to not be on purpose.

Posted by b on December 18, 2011 at 04:21 AM | Permalink

Comments

Debka says Iranians may have penetrated the command and control center running the drones at CIA Headquarters at Langley in McClean, Virginia.

http://warsclerotic.wordpress.com/2011/12/16/whoever-unlocked-the-stealth-drones-secrets-also-broke-into-cia-hq-at-langley/

Posted by: nikon | Dec 18, 2011 7:54:29 AM | 1

Debka is disinformation. Just ignore it.

Posted by: b | Dec 18, 2011 10:11:02 AM | 2

even Iranian media quotes Debka

http://www.presstv.com/detail/216399.html

Posted by: nikon | Dec 18, 2011 10:32:59 AM | 3

Why would Nikon, a disinformationist, ignore a source of disinformation? Do you think he'd be linking to DEBKA if he didn't know what DEBKA is?

You can bet the heads of our drone program, by now, know EXACTLY how the Iranians managed to get their hands on our terminator bot. You can also count on lopsided odds that we, the lowly peons, will never know, no matter how much conjecture, guesswork, and useless intellectual head butting we devote to trying prove to each other how smart we are.

Too bad the Iranians can't as easily get their hands on a nuclear armed B-1 bomber, and lay to rest all the fear mongering about what a "nuclear Iran" may portend.The sooner they get nukes in their arsenal, the sooner these raving lunatics like Bachman will be unable to fabricate doomsday scenarios centered around the fantasy that the Iranian leadership is composed of suicidal religious fanatics hellbent on the destruction of all humanity.

You want to remove the danger of nuclear holocaust being a middle eastern fruit? Then disarm these racist wackjobs in Israel. Then, and ONLY then, would it make sense to snivel and moan about Iranian nuclear ambitions.

Good lord, if I lived next to these murderous bastards in Israel, I'd want nukes too. Doesn't make a whole lot of sense to threaten to beat the shit out of your neighbor, then act all offended and suprised when the guy starts walking around carrying a baseball bat.

Posted by: PissedOffAmerican | Dec 18, 2011 10:33:34 AM | 4

What kinda amazes me about this "How did the Iranians do it" circle jerk is how it puts a fog over the aspects of this story that SHOULD be getting widely discussed.

I mean, hey, aren't our policies and actions towards Iran actual acts of war? Flying spy drones, with offensive capabilities, (armed or not, the capability is there) over sovereign Iran? Fomenting, aiding, and inciting dissent against the ruling government? Sanctions that will undoubtedly hurt the people of Iran, yet do very little about changing the leadership or policies of Iran? CIA meddling and spying? The assasination of Iranian scientists and intelligencia???

Yet here we are, screeching like goosed baboons over Iran's responses to our, (and Israel's), blatant provocations and acts of war! Were I Iranian, I would expect and DEMAND that my leadership be instituting measures to protect my country against the REAL aggressions and acts of war that Israel and the United States were committing in ever increasing frequency and magnitude.

Can you imagine being Iranian, and watching these bloodthirsty lunatics like Bachman, Perry, Gingrich, etc., wax elequoent on the world stage about how insane, suicidal, and fanatical the Iranians are???? Tell you what, if I was Iranian, my leaders couldn't get nukes fast enough if I was watching these Republican assholes doing their war dance on the White House lawn, screaming "boo" at the ignorant slobbering American RW masses.

Who REALLY is the boogie man here, armed to the teeth, and screaming for blood? Has it escaped the mind of this ignorant hillbilly Bachman that she is everything she accuses AchtungAintHeBad of being? Is Washington DC so full of daft and maniacal elitist thugs that they don't recognize that it is WE that are invading, destroying, looting, and murdering willy nilly all over the globe?

Gads, when will this shit end? What the fuck is a matter with us? Are we a nation of idiots?

Posted by: PissedOffAmerican | Dec 18, 2011 11:13:36 AM | 5

"....even Iranian media quotes Debka"

Oh come on, Nikon. I quote Bachman periodically too. Does that mean I subscribe to her horseshit?

How 'bout it, Nikon. Do you honestly advance the opinion that DEBKA is an unbiased and dependible news source? Yes or no??

Posted by: PissedOffAmerican | Dec 18, 2011 11:24:47 AM | 6

And why are we seeing this flying bot as a "spy" machine when it could just as easily be seen as a "targeting" machine. Isn't it prudent of the Iranians to see it as the latter, to err on the side of caution???

Who is to say, had this drone not been brought down, that some Iranian facility or another might now be little more than a smoldering ruin, laser sighted by this drone, thusly guiding Israeli or American missiles to thier target? Or perhaps a gathgering of Iranian scientists, military leaders, or government officials, incinerated by yet one more mysterious explosion of unknown origin?

What, we expect the Iranians to roll over and play dead when faced with our aggressions and crimes against their sovereignity???? Even unarmed, this drone is offensive in nature, and not only because of its spying abilities. When the issue of targeting is considered, this drone is everybit as deadly as a Patriot missile, or a bomber delivered munition. It is, in fact, AN OFFENSIVE WEAPON DEPLOYED OVER IRANIAN AIRSPACE.

And THAT, is an act of war.

Posted by: PissedOffAmerican | Dec 18, 2011 11:47:33 AM | 7

PissedOffAmerican says "And THAT is an act of war."

True. But so is the mere statement that is bandied about by Uncle Weasel all the time that "all options are on the table". That is a threat, and as such, it is a hostile act or an act of war as well as being against the UN Charter, and of course, it is a grotesque disgrace coming from the mouths of leaders of the only country in history to use nuclear weapons, to use them not once but twice (or three times if you want to include the tiny sub-aqua nuclear detonation that set off the tsunami that knocked Nippon into mid-century as a player), and to use them on civilian population centers. OK, so the part about the tsunami is speculation. So sue me :D

Posted by: Unknown Unknowns | Dec 18, 2011 12:35:25 PM | 8

b: you are the Drone Maestro. No doubt about it. The only thing that I have not read on the Redneckistan blogs is that it might have been Harvey the Rabbit that brought it down - you know, anything other than what William of Ockham's dictum seems to dictate (i.e., your brilliantly early hypothesis), which is that us towelheads here in Eye-ran checkmated Captain Amerika on this one.

Keep up the good work. It is much appreciated by us Dune Coons.

Posted by: Unknown Unknowns | Dec 18, 2011 12:45:02 PM | 9

@Dune Coon - nice to see you here. Welcome.

Off topic
A question you are likely more knowledgeable about than I am and that I wanted to ask for some time but not on RfI. Is an Ayatollah or a Marja in the sense of a Shia society, more of a "cleric" (in the "western" catholic sense), or more of a jurist i.e a Professor of legal science? Or maybe something else?

That is something I grapple with for quite some time and I find no good writing on it. Any hints to some sane reading on this will be welcome.

Posted by: b | Dec 18, 2011 2:31:54 PM | 10

b--

Nothing to add.

When a plethora of distractions are thrown up by the media, what the media avoids can sometimes serve as confirmation. Good work.

--Gaianne

Posted by: Gaianne | Dec 18, 2011 3:12:44 PM | 11

"OK, so the part about the tsunami is speculation"

And then some.

Really, I don't think 'ol Mother Nature needs our technical assistance when she chooses to flex her muscles.

But an interesting twist to this whole Fukushima thing is how it revealed ACTUAL nuclear dangers, ongoing, that have nothing to do with the fearmongering spew these criminals in DC vomit up with such regularity. Its somewhat ludicrous getting our panties in a bunch over the alleged Iranian attempts to create a rudimentary nuclear capability when the fuckin' corporatocrazy is maintaining nuclear ticking time bombs right here in the 'ol homeland, isn't it?

What, the San Andreas can't one-up that little shaker in Japan and flip San Onofre on its lid? Diablo poses no risk, despite its location, and its outdated and deteriorating design and state of repair?

Anyone follow the pathetic "radiation monitoring" that we engaged in after the Fukushima disaster?? Most of the technology involved malfunctioned, or didn't even come online. And the monitors that DID function were promptly shut down and taken offline, in the hopes that if we DID start to glow in the dark, they could blame it on Chinese toothpaste or some nasty heathen Iranian terrist that snuck in with a dirty bomb concealed in his left testicle.

Get that friggin' San Onofre out of my backyard, and then maybe you can convince me that this sabre rattlin' at Iran has something to do with protecting us common folk from loosing our hair and shitting strontium.

Posted by: PissedOffAmerican | Dec 18, 2011 3:19:46 PM | 12

b,

There is no technical reason for the line-of-sight control channel to be weakly encrypted. Right now I am typing this up on laptop connected to the internet via a WPA2 encrypted wireless connection, which as far as I know is considered pretty secure, and it's more than enough to watch HD movies streamed in real time, and the hardware I'm using is far from military grade. 99% of any latency issues would be taken care of by using local line-of-sight rather than satellite uplink from the states.

Also there is no easy way to record and analyze 'encrypted' data over and over again in order to decipher it's plain text context. This is because any decent operating procedure would require the encryption keys to be constantly changed, possibly on something like a monthly basis in order to eliminate the chances of this happening.

Also, there is no reason for line-of-sight mode to be enabled for this drone when it is 50000 feet in the air, and it has received no explicit 'handover' instruction from it's state-side 'pilot'. I find it unlikely the US designers would leave such an obvious and weakly protected back door open 100% of the time due to sheer arrogance.

There are a couple of ways I think this could have gone down.
1. Iran was behind the key logger infection at creech air force base, and was able to obtain either security clearances or manuals or design information on US drones that allowed them to pull this stunt off.
2. Iran leveraged some human intelligence assets in Afghanistan in order to obtain the encryption keys and protocols needed to take control of the Sentinnel.
3. (Similar to 2) Some advanced intelligence on the US birds operating in south west asia was provided to the Iranians by an extremely angry general Keyani as final parting shot to the US.
4. This operation is somehow tied to the drone that went down somewhere over Lebanon, that the Israelies were pathetically trying to paint as some kind of counter intelligence coup. The basic story line would be:
a. Iran shoots down US drones over it's airspace and Persian Gulf over the past couple of years, and spends a large number of resources salvaging and reverse engineering the telemetry subsystems.
b. Iran builds slowly builds up EW capabilities.
c. Iran brings down advanced US-Israeli drone through jamming, and somehow manages to quickly extract and reverse engineer command and control keys(which likely are rotated on something like a monthly or bi weekly basis).
d. Iran uses said keys to take control of RQ-170.
5. Iranian cytologists really are that good/somehow got lucky.

Posted by: masoud | Dec 18, 2011 4:55:07 PM | 13

@b,

While I'm not as knowledgeable about this as Unkown dune coon, a Marja or mullah of any rank is nothing more than a respected scholar. For the most socially significant part of their work is as jurists, but just as much, they are philosophers. I haven't read the following title, but I understand it's generally highly regarded:
Shi'ite Islam, Muhhammad Tabatabaei:
http://www.amazon.com/Shiite-Allamah-Sayyid-Muhammad-Tabatabai/dp/0873953908/ref=sr_1_5?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1324246193&sr=1-5

Posted by: masoud | Dec 18, 2011 5:16:19 PM | 14

Off topic
A question you are likely more knowledgeable about than I am and that I wanted to ask for some time but not on RfI. Is an Ayatollah or a Marja in the sense of a Shia society, more of a "cleric" (in the "western" catholic sense), or more of a jurist i.e a Professor of legal science? Or maybe something else?

b., not being Shia my understanding is second hand but it seems that an Ayatollah is more a jurist in that they are supposed to create a body of work that has been approved (kind of like number of publications in a approved journal works for scientists in the the west....there is/used to be one woman Ayatollah). The 'cleric' part comes from how many in the common masses choose to follow a particular Ayatollahs reasonings. So some may become very popular and famous because their opinions find mass acceptance while others remain relegated to the halls of the academia of Qom. This is the limits of my understanding. Hope it is of some use.

Posted by: Khalid Shah | Dec 18, 2011 5:19:57 PM | 15

Iranian cytologists=Iranian cryptologists
in above post

Posted by: masoud | Dec 18, 2011 5:21:26 PM | 16

One can only guess whose interest is served in publishing it?
We have to assume that it serves Iranian interests It is, after all, their story

Until we heard their story, I liked your guess about how they gained control of the drone. But if Iran says the drone landed itself then it's probably worth treating the claim seriously until it can be proven wrong. The claim I found hard to swallow in the CSM story was the bit about reprogramming the drone's memory or words to that effect. But their overall claim is that they fed the drone false GPS data. This is plausible because anyone interested in doing so has had 20 years or so to experiment with the possibilities.

[In Australia, for example, in the early days when the system was broadcasting dumbed down data, local repeater stations intercepted the GPS signals and rebroadcast a corrected signal to improve accuracy.]

Iran has admitted their scheme had a flaw or two, but the prize is still in one piece and the Yankees haven't poured cold water on their story.

Imo the risk of collision is only an argument against letting a drone make up its own mind about when it lands. It's not an argument against equipping it to land without human input. I believe the Global Hawk can do this and I'm pretty sure that hundreds, if not thousands, of commecial jetliners have had this capability for many years - Airbus being but one example.

Posted by: Hoarsewhisperer | Dec 18, 2011 6:33:05 PM | 17


And for filing under things that would be nice if true,

http://www.informationclearinghouse.info/article30026.htm

Iran needs Russian or Chinese technical support to deter America's impending war of aggression. ASAT points to Russia, which has been on it for a while - very good laser know-how and systems integration experience. The SCO's line in the sand is Iran, and they will fry a lot of Uncle Sam's shit if that line is crossed.

Posted by: ...---... | Dec 18, 2011 7:00:37 PM | 18

@Hoarsewhisperer

It is not Iran's story. It's Scott Peterson’s. And Scott Peterson pretty much par for the course as far as credibility and believability of Western journalists is concerned.

Posted by: masoud | Dec 18, 2011 8:57:35 PM | 19

"And Scott Peterson pretty much par for the course as far as credibility and believability of Western journalists is concerned"

Theres such a thing as a "western journalist"??? WHERE???? All I see are whores and patsies in our media ranks.

Posted by: PissedOffAmerican | Dec 18, 2011 9:54:18 PM | 20

@ masoud, --ways this could have gone down
While the U.S. 'strategic communications' message is that Iran is isolated in the world, this is not the case. We needn't assume that whatever intell was involved in this drone affair was Iran's alone. Iran has powerful friends in the world, including Russia and China. Regarding China, its intell operation has recently received some well-deserved attention.

Dec. 1, 2011 (Bloomberg) -- The U.S. is invoking Cold War-era national-security powers to force telecommunication companies including AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc. to divulge confidential information about their networks in a hunt for Chinese cyber-spying.

“They [China] are stealing everything that isn’t bolted down, and it’s getting exponentially worse,” said Representative Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican who is chairman of the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.

from intelnews: Intelligence researcher and author David Wise opined in The New York Times that the West had better recognize that China “has developed a world-class espionage service —one that rivals the CIA”. He qualified his statement by providing several examples of major espionage triumphs achieved by the Chinese intelligence services in the last decade, such as the acquisition of design blueprints for the US-built B-1 bomber and Northrop Grumman’s B-2 stealth bomber.

Posted by: Don Bacon | Dec 18, 2011 9:59:02 PM | 21

masoud @ 19.
I'm not familiar with Peterson's work, but even the NYT & WaPo occasionally publish some unvarnished truth. My ire for Western journalists is raised by their preference for stenography rather than fearless inquiry.

I don't see how the story, whether it's Iran's or CSM's, damages Iran in any way.

Posted by: Hoarsewhisperer | Dec 18, 2011 10:08:03 PM | 22

@Hoarsewhisperer

Well, you can take my word for it on Peterson's credibility or decline to, but the essential point is that the story as outlined in the CSM is not the 'Iranian' version of events. It is Scott Peterson's, backed up with an 'anonymous source' supposedly located somewhere very deep in the IRGC aeronautics engineering core. (Do you really think it is possible for a journalist to cultivate a contact in such a position, only a week and a half after this drones story came to public light?)

Anything we could reasonably call "Iran's Story" would either be published in Iranian media or feature the claims of named Iranian soldiers or officials.

Posted by: masoud | Dec 18, 2011 10:41:08 PM | 23

Pissed off American @ 12

Nicely done. And the coinage 'cleptocrazy' had me chuckling. I hadn't come across that spelling variant before :)

Going back to the "conspiracy" angle, it is speculation, no doubt. But I guess if there is a point I was making it is this: that it would not *surprise* me if that is in fact what actually went down. In other words, I would not put it past these "crazies", to use your happy turn of phrase. Which is exactly the thoughts I had on the morning of 9/11/01, which suspicions, in that case anyway, turned out to be true of course. But that's another story.

Posted by: Unknown Unknowns | Dec 18, 2011 10:44:19 PM | 24

@PissedOffAmerican

Agree for the most part. But there are honorable exceptions which sometimes have get access to MSM. Gareth Porter and Patrick Cockburn are excellent by any measure.

Posted by: masoud | Dec 18, 2011 10:44:56 PM | 25

@Don Bacon
I think that's a plausible hypothesis. I find it very unlikely that either China or Russia would share information about any kind of major weakness in American drone technology that they find. You'd probably expect them to keep their cards close to their chest in case they may one day need to play them, and I feel Iran's too cheap to give up anything important enough for this to be exchanged for. But stranger things have happened, and this whole episode is extremely unlikely any way you cut it.

Posted by: masoud | Dec 18, 2011 10:50:29 PM | 26

@ ...---...
The SCO's line in the sand is Iran, and they will fry a lot of Uncle Sam's shit if that line is crossed.
I'm inclined to agree with you.
Let's hope we're right.

Posted by: Hoarsewhisperer | Dec 18, 2011 10:55:01 PM | 27

What was the Beast of Kandahar doing in northeastern Iran, far from any known Iran nuclear facilities? Reportedly (Iran) it was flown not from Kandahar but from Shindad Air Base, in northwestern Afghanistan. This is a quiet part of Afghanistan, occupied by the Italian military.

"The Sentinel drone that crashed in Iran last week was on a surveillance mission of suspected nuclear sites in the country, U.S. military officials tell CNN."

The area where the drone was downed, from what we know, has no nuclear facilities and no uranium mines. Iran's two uranium mines are the Gchine mine located in southern Iran near Bandar Abbas and the Saghand Mine located in Yazd in central Iran.

Posted by: Don Bacon | Dec 18, 2011 10:59:32 PM | 28

masoud @ 23.
I'm not disputing what you say about Peterson's record and b has expressed similar sentiments. But if you're trying to persuade me that the CSM story is disinfo all you need to do is point out the way in which it damages Iran.

Posted by: Hoarsewhisperer | Dec 18, 2011 11:29:43 PM | 29

b @ 10
Is an Ayatollah or a Marja in the sense of a Shia society, more of a "cleric" (in the "western" catholic sense), or more of a jurist i.e a Professor of legal science? Or maybe something else?

Thanks for the welcoming words.

To answer your question, its “maybe something else”. The answer to your question is actually quite complex, as the understanding of the role of an Ayatollah entails understanding a different culture and civilization’s self-understanding of religion, which definition is in many elemental ways alien to the Western self-understanding of religion and the role that the priestly class plays in it. In other words, as your last question wisely foresaw, it is *not* the case where we have a series of pigeonholes, two of which are labeled “Jurist” and “Professor of Law”, and we simply have to decide which pigeonhole to place our Ayatollah in, or, say, place 40% of him in one hole, and 60% of him in another. That is not the case: in so far as the analogy obtains, the configuration of the woodwork is different.

So a proper answer would have to go into a comparative topology of characteristics and functions, which would take forever, and which I would probably not do a good job at. So my response will be necessarily selective rather than comprehensive.

One of the problems that our Prophet (with whom be peace) did away with or tried to do away with was the very existence of a priestly class as such. The successfulness of this aspect of his project is again another huge subject, which we will have to ignore. The important thing to understand for the purposes of this discussion is that the relationship between man and God in Islam is unmediated – neither by an individual cleric nor by a clerical class, nor yet by the organizational structure of that class of clerics, the Church. The relationship is direct and unmediated. In the Christian tradition (be it Catholic, Coptic, Nestorian, Greek, Russian or Armenian Orthodox, etc.) a duly ordained priest of a Church is required for an individual to establish a connection with God. There is a difference that is set in motion and jealously guarded by the Church and its priest between the vernacular language of the congregation and the liturgical tongue of the priesthood. That is why the Bible was always recited in Latin in Europe – so that only the initiate could understand it, and the layman would be dependent on the priest’s cryptanalysis. It took a clever fellow by the name of Martin Luther to translate the Bible into the vernacular and to say that the Vatican was *not* needed for man to have a relationship with God. Better late than never, I guess.

So that is one important distinction, which is an element in the answer to the question you raised. Another one is the whole issue of the role of religion in questions of state. I do not want to use the hackneyed “separation of Church and State” refrain, as there is no such thing as a “Church” in Islam to separate from the State (or a Mosque or Masjid endowed with an hierarchy that enjoys exclusive authority). This question is itself complicated by the differences in approach to the issue by various sub-elements of the nascent community of Moslems and their respective spirituo-temporal textures and sensibilities – modalities which later crystallized into Sunnite, Shi’ite and Kharijite, among others, each of which again splintered. The Sunnite encounter with this issue was basically to accept the authority of whomever happened to seize the reins of power and managed to hold on to them, whereas the shi’ite encounter was very different and involved belief in a cycle of 12 divinely appointed Guides or Imams, the Cycle of Imamate which followed the Cycle of Prophecy. This distinction bears on the question you asked as the Ayatollahs are in a sense successors to the Imams (the last of which is in an occulted state in an isthmus or in the interstices between this world and the next), the Greater Occultation (circa 941 CE) having ushered in a *third* cycle, the Cycle of Wilaaya(t) or Guardianship. Imam Khomeini’s actualization or institutionalization of the Wilaaya(t) or Guardianship of the Jurisconsult (faqih, or Ayatollahs, if you will) adds yet another kink into this cauldron, as it formalizes and institutionalizes this Cycle as *necessary* (in the absence of the Imam of the Age), and as such, introduces a certain mediation in that relationship.
I’m sorry to have given you a completely inadequate answer. If all I have managed to do is to give you a glimpse into a whole other world, than I will have to settle for that. It is a beautiful world, and one that requires and indeed demands that many volumes be written on it. And good work has been done and continues to be done, but alas I am not able to point you to a single source, an “Ayatollah for Dummies” as it were (with due respect!).

If you are interested, though, there are good books of general information, including The Vision of Islam by Murata and Chittick; Shi’a Islam by Momen; (The Tabatabai book massoud referred to is authoritative and is greatly aided by the excellent translation and annotation of Seyyed Hossain Nasr, but is ultimately sterile as it is written by a Shi’a scholar who was not in my opinion able to address a Western audience in anything remotely resembling a satisfactory way); No God but God by Aslan; The Formative Period of Islamic Thought by Watt; Conflicts in Islamic Jurisprudence by Coulson; and the mighty and magisterial The Succession to Muhammad by Madelung.

Wa’llahu ‘alam (And God knows [best]).

Posted by: Unknown Unknowns | Dec 19, 2011 12:08:00 AM | 30

b @ 12 Ct'd:

So I forgot to draw the mini-conclusion that our little preamble will enable us to draw, namely, that becuase there is no mediation in Islam, the Ayatollah is closer to the Doctor of Law than to the Priest, but because of the all-embracing role of religion in Shi'a Islam (and Islam generally, actually), the Ayatollah is closer to the Priest and the traditional (medieval) priest at that, in that his opinions bear on every aspect of life, albeit in a consulting capacity borne out of an expertise deriving from specialization rather than because of a special position he occupies because of his role as cleric or becuase of his position in a clerical organizational or institutional structure.

Posted by: Unknown Unknowns | Dec 19, 2011 3:28:44 AM | 31

For more advanced reading in the English language, I recommend Amir-Moezzi’s “The Divine Guide in Shi’a Islam” as well as the works of Henri Corbin, especially his “Avicenna and the Visionary Recital” (both these works are translated from the original French).

And just FYI, an Ayatollah (literally = 'sign of God [on Earth]) is always a marja' but a marja' (which literally means source or reference point and is short for marja'-i taqlid = Source of Emmulation) is not necessarily an ayatollah. One can reach the station (maqaam) of marja'iat (of being a source of reference on religious matters) without having reached the (higher) station of Ayatollah. One becomes a marja' once he (or she) passes the level of Khoruj and thus becomes a mojtahid (someone who is able to apply him or herself to the sources of law (Koran, hadith, etc.) and derive new laws and rulings based on those sources and based on his or her ijtihad (personal legal endeavour), which entails such things as 'aql (reason), qiyas (analogical reasoning), 'adl (justice) and in the case of Sunnite ijtihad, ijma' (consensus), etc.

Posted by: Unknown Unknowns | Dec 19, 2011 3:59:57 AM | 32

actually the only person comparable in catholic religion would be the pope
http://www.sistani.org/index.php?p=855722
as only he can rule what a believer can do or not.

so shiites are more like protestants, I guess, where theology is a diverse discussion of equals, and what people do depends very much on the pastor they choose. same applies to islam generally I suppose. the difference between sunnis and shiites cannot be as huge as between catholics and protestants as the catholic church still prevents followers from praying with Protestants whilst there seems to be no problem for shiites and sunnis
http://www.sistani.org/index.php?p=616687&id=1280, neither seems there to be a problem to intermarry, which the catholic church still frowns upon.

most protestants or catholics would not allow the church to influence every aspect of their lives, however.
I guess that is the same for Muslims, it all depends how religiously conservative you are.

Posted by: somebody | Dec 19, 2011 5:36:06 AM | 33

@UU - thanks, that helped - still lots of stuff I'd like to read and will probably never get to.

@somebody - for a catholic the pope MUST be followed, Sistani in one of several marjas and a shia believer can choose to follow any of them (or none). That's why I think the comparison is not fitting.

Posted by: b | Dec 19, 2011 7:39:28 AM | 34

it's already a feat to realize there are other worlds; but to be able to really understand them, well, that's another matter entirely

Unknown, I'm ignorant of the world you evoked in your posts, but I feel you would make a good marja'iat (at least!); and a good judge in ours

Posted by: claudio | Dec 19, 2011 7:04:33 PM | 35

A sudden thought (@29 hoarsewhisper):

The Christian Science Monitor story involving GPS-spoofing may not be aimed at making Iran look bad (it doesn't) but to provide a CYA for US intelligence, as the likelihood that Iran hacked the drone directly (with or without code-breaking) is too horrible to admit.

And if code keys were hacked or stolen, so much the worse: No way the US is going to admit to that.

This is as big a defeat for the US as the 2008 Georgia-Ossetia War.

I expect--and hope--this means we will hear a lot of yelling and screaming but no action.

--Gaianne

Posted by: Gaianne | Dec 20, 2011 12:37:29 AM | 36

@ Gaianne.

Imo, only the Yankees and the Iranisns know just how much of an utter PR, tactical and strategic disaster this is for the World's Only StuporPower.

Anyone who thinks America is going to attack Iran any time soon hasn't been paying attention. Iran has known for decades that America is their arch enemy - if they're ever silly enough to allow themselves to look like a soft target.

Here's a map of US bases around Iran.
http://niqnaq.wordpress.com/2011/12/13/us-bases-in-mideast/

It's a little out of date since the Iraq "withdrawal" but depending on one's point of view it's either the picture of a dire threat to Iran or it's a picture of a cornucopia of targets comprising concentrated clusters of Yankees waiting to become "collateral damage".

Leaving aside the issues of potential disruption to world oil supply, countries willing to come to Iran's aid if it is attacked, and the fact that Iran has EVERY form of non-nuclear weaponry in its arsenal, this isn't a blueprint for a Yankee victory.

The Iran Talk is a distraction from the US elite's dopey plans for reaming US citizens, or some other asinine daydream, (take your pick). But it's certainly not about the US military embarrassing itself by instigating hostilities with Iran.

Posted by: Hoarsewhisperer | Dec 20, 2011 9:30:42 PM | 37

B, this is from a year ago

http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2010/10/armys-drones-get-new-add-ons-radars-self-landing-cellular-coverage/

Posted by: Yoni Ra | Dec 21, 2011 5:09:57 PM | 38

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