The new Iranian style guide

Is it that time of year for a haircut? If you're in Iran, take a walk to your nearest barbershop, plop in a swively chair, and peruse through the catalogue of hairstyles on the counter. But make sure to survey the clean-shaven coifs and gel-infused buzzcuts in the catalogue carefully -- you now must select one of them for yourself, at your government's behest.

These sartorial sanctions are the latest crackdown on what the government percieves to be a more modern, Western aesthetic proliferating in Iran's popular culture. State-imposed restrictions have been growing steadily more stringent to combat "bad hijab" -- the improper veiling of men and women alike -- and clothes and makeup that, the government claims, contradict Islamic principles. But the multicolored mohawks, rockstar-inspired ponytails, and unkempt mullets popping up around Tehran recently seem to have been the final straw: the Culture Ministry has now banned a number of "decadent Western cuts" and issued a catalogue of permissible hairdos from which male salon-goers must choose.

Take a look at the pictures of the epic style summit where the catalogue was created: barbers, clerics, and government officials came together, visualizing proportions of beard to hair on mannequin faces and taking painstaking care to engineer the proper haircuts. While shaggy bangs have fallen victim to the blacklist, styles resembling the 1950's flattop -- a widespread fashion faux pas from the era of Elvis -- are deemed perfectly fine.

Though these constraints may seem superficial, be on the lookout for some serious backlash from the country's constituents. In the thirty-one years since the Iranian Republic was established, the power struggle between young Iranians -- fighting to maintain their freedom of expression -- and the government -- fighting to crush it -- has only escalated. The suppressed one-year anniversary of Iran's 2009 elections has already begun to amass a repository of unleashed defiance; not to mention some Iranians just won't be happy flipping through their barber's catalogue and asking, "Can I have the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad?"



The White Flag approach

Somalia's transitional federal government doesn't have a lot going for it. No control over the territory, no money in the coffers, no ability to tax, and no ability to offer services. This is not exactly a new predicament, but it's also not getting any better. And so in the last couple of weeks, I've noticed a shift in tack from the country's leaders to what I'll call the "white flag" approach.

In laymans terms, one could summarize this as "Dear Lord, please someone anyone please please help." In diplo-speek it looks like this: 

President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed: "Somalia is in the hands of al-Qaeda and extremist groups. The whole issue needs urgent treatment ...I would like to tell you that Somalia is going through its most dangerous phase in recent times and we are asking for intensified efforts in order to set up an effective military strategy."

Prime Minister Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke: "The Somali government, backed by African Union peacekeeping forces, is gradually extending the rule of law in Mogadishu and elsewhere in Somalia. The hard fight on the ground is ours to win, but we need international support from afar to remain strong if we hope to succeed."

Interesting tack for a country whose last century has largely been a story of failed intervention (first colonial, then Cold War, then U.S./U.N., and then Ethoipian last year.) The trouble is, that also means that almost everyone who has tried to do something (for better or worse) has been burned. And is hardly eager to for another round in Mogadishu. 

Tragedy here is that Somalia is probably just as dangerous to the world as it is to itself, as the Prime Minister wrote for FP

"Constructive disengagement" is a nice euphemism for the same very old and thoroughly failed policies that Western countries have used for years to wrongly argue that Somalia's problems can remain in Somalia. This was the prevailing attitude of much of the international community during most of the past two decades -- until rampant piracy drew navies from around the world toward Somali waters. The presence offshore of a flotilla of warships from the navies of more than two dozen countries illustrates vividly how our country's internal problems are a pressing international issue.

And the pirates are just the beginning.