Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Torn on the fourth of July

The hardliners are clinging on in Tehran, and fighting back. Official "loser" Mousavi is nowhere to be seen, posters of murdered protester Neda Agha Soltan are torn down, the footballers who sported green armbands will never play for their country again. Repentant opposition supporters confess their "crimes" on TV. The spell, in short, is broken. The opposition movement is disorientated and, largely, powerless. Having right on your side is never enough. In fact, as history shows, it is usually a disadvantage.

But one thing should now be patently clear. The Islamic Republic of Iran is not a special case. The smell coming from the ruling theocrats is not the odour of sanctity. Its repression of thought and dress and debate is not balanced by virtue, moral, religious or otherwise. No. The Iranian government is just another ugly authoritarian dictatorship, determined to employ violence and lies to maintain itself in power.

Most people knew that already, of course. Yet the regime could until now at least clothe itself in the rhetoric of righteousness. It could point to reasonably free elections (albeit among carefully vetted candidates); or to the high motives of its revolution, and the injustices of the Shah; or to its theological justifications. It could hoodwink gullible westerners, both Left and Right, that it represented some sort of "third way" between dictatorship and occidental decadence, as Ayatollah Khamanei described it in his speech on Friday. A "religious democracy" which "attracts the hearts of people and brings them to the center of the arena".

Alastair Crooke of the Conflicts Forum - a former member of the security services - is typical of this sort of thinking. Recently he wrote of the regime:


It is a voyage of discovery to a new “Self” that is far from complete. It has many shortcomings, but its intellectual insights offer Muslims (and Westerners) the potential to step beyond the shortcomings of Western materialism. This is what excites and energizes. As a Hezbollah leader replied to me when asked what the Iranian Revolution had signified for him, he said unhesitatingly that Muslims were free to think Islamically once again.

It is not possible therefore to make sense of the Iranian or wider Islamic resistance without understanding it as a philosophic and metaphysical event, too. It is the omission of this latter understanding that helps explain repeated Western misreadings of Iran, its Revolution and events in the region.


Actually, it isn't. Whatever it may have meant originally, the Iranian Revolution today is just the usual bunch of thugs clinging on to power. But when Crooke says "Iranian resistance", he means its resistance to the west, not Iranians' resistance to their own tyrannical regime, of course.

If you do not feel a lump in your throat at the sight of the demonstrators in Tehran then you have no heart. And you have no sense of history. What of the students who twenty years ago were mown down in Tianenmen Square? Were they not right to want liberty from the oppressive dictatorship that oppressed them? That authoritarian pseudo-communism was too strong for them does not make their cause wrong. The democratic movements crushed by Russian tanks in Hungary in 1956 and in Czechoslovakia in 1968 were not wrong because they lost. Nor would they have been wrong had they been outnumbered, had the majority continued to lend their support to an inhuman system. It is no accident that Ahmadinejad's backers reach so naturally for the tools of tyrants and despots throughout history: violence, censorship, intimidation and attempts to block the movement of information into and out of the country. Nor is it an accident that his "victory" has been greeted so warmly by Russia.

Of course they do not represent the whole of Iran. But they represent those elements of Iranian society that are most progressive, most outward-looking and most aware. And if they represent only a privileged minority of the population, so what? Revolutions have always been made by the middle classes. People who are in touch with the outside world, who have the imagination to see beyond the narrow nationalistic propaganda spewed out by their rulers, are less likely to be paid-up cheerleaders for the theocratic despots who control the Iranian state. So be it. They are right; the rest of the country will catch up with them eventually.



I refuse to believe that history is on the side of reactionary clerics whose hired thugs roam the streets assaulting or arresting women the sight of whose hair peaking out from underneath a scarf offends them. I refuse to believe that history is on the side of a Holocaust denier who believes that a promised divine Imam is inspiring his push for nuclear weapons. I refuse to believe that history is on the side of the authorities who would send armed men into the street to shoot an unarmed and inoffensive young woman or into university dormitories to murder students; or of a terrorist regime which locks up political dissidents and which seeks, through the United Nations, to impose its own idea of blasphemy on the entire world. The Islamic Republic is an historical anomaly. Thirty years on, it is finally creaking as a generation comes of age that cares nothing for the abuses committed by the Shah but experiences daily the petty oppression under which they are forced to live their lives.

These are our people. What are their values? Human rights, transparent elections, freedom of thought and expression, pluralism, progress, openness to the world. What do they stand against? Obscurantism, isolationism, reaction. Whichever way it pans out, they are the good guys, and we should cheer for them. So it has been depressing to watch Barack Obama's studied indifference over the past couple of weeks. At first, heavy hints from the White House and the State Department suggested that the Administration actually wanted Ahmadinejad to win, if only because a "friendlier" Mousavi government would be hard to isolate internationally when it inevitably carried on with its nuclear programme. Then, even as it became obvious that the Iranian election had turned into a farce we heard little from either the US or Britain beyond embarrassed groans.

Finally, yesterday, the President spoke. He was "appalled and outraged by the threats, beatings, and imprisonments of the last few days" and suggested that the protestors were on "the right side of history". Not bad words - if rather belated. But his tone was oddly mechanical, lacking in warmth or conviction. It looked like a response to his critics rather than to events in Tehran. Critics like John McCain, who said in a recent interview that Obama should "speak out far more strongly" and "reassert American values and our commitment to human rights we first stated on the 4th of July, 1776".

Talking of the Fourth, a possible PR disaster for the White House looms next Saturday. In a gesture of goodwill at the end of last month, Iranian ambassadors and diplomats around the world were for the first time included on the guest-list for US embassy celebrations of Independence Day. State Department spokesman Robert Wood described the move as being "very much in line with our policy of trying to engage the Iranian government": conspicuousy, no such invitation was issued to Cuban corps diplomatiques. Yesterday, despite Obama's stronger words, the invitation appeared still to be open. The sight of represenatatives of the government that murdered Neda enjoying the fireworks and barbecues would not play well in the US. But perhaps the Iranians will save Obama's blushes by not turning up to eat the corrupt Zionist food. [Update: it transpires that no Iranians accepted the invitations, which will not be re-issued. So that's all right then. H/t Charles Crawford]

McCain was surely right to remind Obama of the words of the Declaration of Independence, which would seem to be apposite at moments such as this:

Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government.


It is said in Obama's defence that reticence is the best policy, that outspokenness would have given the Tehran regime an excuse to blame foreign interference and crack down on protests. But, as is now clear, they did not need any such excuse. And I increasingly doubt the logic of the argument. If Bush, or even a President McCain, had spoken out in favour of freedom and justice for the people of Iran, it would indeed have played to the mullahs' strengths. Bush, after all - for all the boost to Iranian power provided by his adventure in Iraq - was easily characterised as an enemy of Islam. McCain thought that "Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran" made a suitable campaign song.

But in the past week it is Britain, rather than the US, that has borne the brunt of Iranian condemnation. We may flatter ourselves that the success of the BBC's Persian service has unnerved the hardliners so much they had to resort to expelling our diplomats. It may even be that the diplomats deserved to be expelled, in that they were providing covert hope to the opposition. I would dearly like to think so, though given the present government's track record when it comes to Iran I severely doubt it. No: they went after Britain because it would have been impolitic to attack the United States. Because they know full well how popular Obama is.

Indeed, Obama need have gone no further than repeat his remarks in Cairo:

I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn't steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. Those are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere...

Suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away. America respects the right of all peaceful and law-abiding voices to be heard around the world, even if we disagree with them. And we will welcome all elected, peaceful governments – provided they govern with respect for all their people.


Obama has a moral authority that his predecessor conspicuously lacked - but there's no point in having such authority if you're not prepared to use it. Unfortunately, there are two Obamas: the idealist who inspires (sometimes) with his rhetoric and the realpolitician who disappoints (more often) with his deeds. And that other Obama was also on display in Cairo. The president spoke warmly of "the Islamic Republic of Iran" (rather than the Iranian people), promising to "to move forward without preconditions on the basis of mutual respect". His words then echoed his remarks during the election campaign.

I blame the influence of Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter's one-time National Security Adviser and, more recently, something of a foreign policy mentor to Barack Obama. In 2004, Brzezinski and Robert Gates - now Secretary of Defense - produced a report for the Council on Foreign Relations on the of Iran-US relations which outlined the strategy adopted since Obama came to power.

The document took for granted that "despite considerable political flux and popular dissatisfaction" Iran was not on the verge of another revolution and that therefore the US should adopt a policy of "selective engagement". Democracy was of course desirable, but "the forces that are committed to preserving Iran's current system remain firmly in control and currently represent the country's only authoritative interlocutors". It counselled against "the rhetoric of regime change", which would only stir up nationalist sentiment in favour of the government. It even claimed that "Iran's "tradition of constitutionalism and experience in representative government may prove a valuable model for any regional transition to a more democratic order".

Whether you call this policy cyncism or realism, it depends on there being a stable, strong Iranian state in full control of the populace. But it also depends on acquiescence on the part of the American people and its political leadership in that dialogue. Now that the Iranian state has provided fresh evidence of its basically thuggish and undemocratic nature, preaching pragmatism may no longer be possible. Talking to the illegitimate Ahmadinejad and the paranoid reactionaries who stand behind him and pull his strings ought to be out of the question now. The Iranian people deserve to know, without a hint of equivocation, that the free world is on their side.