This essay was first published in the Palestine Chronicle 2009 06 23.
Long on rhetoric, short on memory
Having watched the situation in Iran now for several years through to the current protests by the dissident citizens of the country unsatisfied with the election results, I remain as perplexed as ever. Not the perplexity of not understanding what is actually going on as there are enough news sources available outside the control of western corporate media, but the perplexity of a world that ignores the larger context and the longer history of the peoples involved.
Iran is about as democratic as most Middle East countries are. While they do have an autocratic Supreme Ruler based on an Islamic model, their elections demonstrate the passions of the people and their beliefs. Iran is not perfect and does sink into the atrocities of arresting and abusing its own citizens. The current election by most accounts was delivered fairly with pre-election polls from accepted international sources indicating that Ahmadinejad would win with an impressive two to one majority. Official government reports indicate this is what happened.
The election perhaps was not as democratic as the one that elected Hamas to office in Palestine (more on that later), but it was certainly more democratic and open than the fake elections that Egypt holds. Iraq has a democratically elected government, but only at the insistence of Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in 2004-2005 who outmanoeuvred the U.S. occupation administration in demanding it under conditions suitable to the Shia majority.
Afghanistan pretends to have a democratic government, duly elected, but consisting of warlords, drug lords, and profiteers who control very little of the country and have no control over the U.S. occupation other than subversively. Pakistan – arguably in the “Middle East” - is again a nominal democracy but has served as a U.S. puppet in the region since its founding, and is now suffering under U.S. subversion and attacks while the people of the different regions have little say in what their mostly powerless politicians are doing. Other Middle East countries do not even come close to a democracy, many of who are supported by the U.S. regardless – Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar.
None of this explains, excuses, or condemns what is happening in Iran. There is enough information – valid or not, justifiable or not – for every proponent to have their say...which is where context and history have their role.
Context – incriminations of history
There is a combination of selective memory and selective interpretation of events when the U.S. looks at its own history. Either through media manipulation, or through the rhetoric of ‘exceptionalism’, the western view of Iran lacks perspective on both the history of the United States, that of Iran, and of the interactions between the two.
President Obama has at least acknowledged that the U.S. interfered with the Iranian democracy when it, in concert with the British, ran a covert operation that overturned the Mossadegh government, democratically elected, in the early 1950s. If that were the sole source of Iranian irritation with the U.S. it might more readily be overcome, but the longer picture involves a longer relationship of involvement in Iran and the countries around it.
1979 - a pivotal year.
The Soviet Union was drawn into a war in Afghanistan in 1979, a war partly instigated and supported by the CIA, the Pakistanis ISI, and the main original source of today’s mujahideen fighters. The results are – or should be – generally well known, as the Soviets exited ten years later, the U.S. left, and the various warlords fell to the Taliban under Pakistani support five years later. The western border of Afghanistan is with Iran, who at the time assisted the U.S. military in their pursuit of the Taliban.
Also in 1979, President Carter, much more of a warrior then than his current older and wiser role as an envoy of peace, had to deal with one of the long term results of the Mossadegh overthrow, the Iranian revolution against the Shah. The Shah received U.S. support (and Israeli support), and operated one of the more severe secret police forces – the SAVAK – in the region to quell dissent. He was also in process of establishing a nuclear program. With rising disparities economically within the country and continued U.S. support internally and continued U.S. support for the Israeli occupation of Palestine, the revolution had a natural adversary, an external enemy that continually threatened.
That threat was only reinforced in 1980, when Iraq attacked Iran. This bloody, costly lose-lose situation had all countries with military hardware and information trying their hand at supporting one side or the other, mainly hoping to bleed them both dry, financially and militarily. The U.S., Israel, South Africa, Russia and others all contributed to this military fiasco.
Saddam Hussein made 1979 notable as well. This was the year he consolidated power under himself and the rule of the Baath party. Hussein was provided with U.S. military supplies and ‘double use’ materials that could be used for either nuclear weapons or chemical weapons. When Donald Rumsfeld, then a special envoy from Reagan, shook his hand in 1983, the fear was that Iraq would collapse from the war it instigated against Iran, leading to a loss of U.S. geopolitical strategy that included access to oil, projection of power (containment of Russia and China) and protection of allies – not much has changed.
Since 1979, more and more disasters have befallen the Middle East, many taking their time to ferment and explode, but all with their roots in U.S./CIA/special operations interference in the region. History would indicate ongoing U.S. interference, and is supported by information on George Bush’s signing of a Presidential Advisory in 2007 allowing for CIA interference in Iran – as if they had not already been there and done that. Other forms of interference are the oft-referenced sanctions that have hindered the development of the economy (at the same time being evaded by Halliburton, the billion dollar war profiteer company now operating U.S. garrisons in Iraq).
More recently, the U.S. continues to interfere in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India (working against its own rhetoric about the Nuclear non-proliferation treaty), Lebanon, and is now trying to work its way into the Central Asian countries where Russia and China have established a loose yet increasingly more formal alliance of the Shanghai Cooperative Organization (SCO). The after effects of events of 1979 are still unravelling around us – the “war on terror” started well before 2001.
So whom do I tend to believe? I tend to believe the history of interference and manipulation that is the centre of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, and a focus of its broader geopolitical interests. I tend to believe that much of the current activity is promulgated by the U.S. and its interests in the country. Iranian nuclear weapons are not the problem; Iranian democracy is not the problem; the problem is Iranian belligerence towards U.S. hegemony in the area and its central location within the oil/gas producing areas of the region and its central location for influencing China, Russia, and Central Asia.
Is Iran without fault in all this? No, as there is plenty of room for improvement within Iran. Yet again in counterpoint, those problems might be significantly lessened if the U.S. would stop interfering there and elsewhere. While Iran may not live up to the United States idealized image of itself as an exceptional and perfect democracy, the process is long and hard to even achieve a semblance of democracy as the history of the U.S. itself demonstrates.
Rhetoric and actions
The U.S. is long on rhetoric, long on its wonderfulness, yet its actions within its own history demonstrate the shortcomings of its democracy. The U.S. has used its own military and private enforcement agencies to quell riots and disturbances at various mills and mines during the labour protests of the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century. Anti-war student demonstrators were killed at Kent State during the Vietnam war. It can be argued effectively that the U.S. itself is not truly a democracy, with its arcane voting system, its demands for wealth, and the revolving door between the politicians, the military, and the corporate world.
President Obama spoke of change, yet to achieve what he did, he must have somehow fit the image and beliefs of what the establishment – the powers behind both political parties – were interested in promoting. His rhetoric is wonderful. He is intelligent, crafty, and popular. He is not wise. He fits into the establishment pattern very well, and while he has acted in promoting some superficial changes, the big promises of change have not come.
Obama has expanded the war into Pakistan – not that it had not already been there, but it has become his war for current media coverage. He has disallowed torture at Guantanamo, yet has allowed renditions to continue and the military courts to continue without U.S. homeland oversight. His plan of attack for the economy remains within the hands of Clinton era Democrats, the people who had a major role in getting the economy to where its current sorry state; the solution is welfare for the banks and corporations, and the good old rugged Reaganesque individualism for the masses. He has stopped the jargon about a “war on terror” yet continually talks about assisting other countries against terrorism, regardless of the U.S. role in creating it. He has made a wonderful sounding speech to the Muslim world, yet remained solidly within the Israeli camp, achieving only another announcement in the decades long pronouncements about another or revitalized peace plan that will allow ongoing ‘settlement’ construction in the West Bank.
Democratic Double Standards – Iran and Palestine
Watching the newsclips on television tonight reminds me of another situation that looks eerily similar when viewed through the grainy lenses of amateur videos. The smoke, the tear gas, the small fires, the protesters throwing rocks back at the police or military or whoever is trying to prevent their actions are not uncommon to the Middle East.
Another area where these pictures have occurred has been in the Palestinian territories, where rock throwing protesters have fought for decades against an occupation force consisting of a well equiped modern army who also use tear gas, live ammunition, helicopters, missiles and other assorted weapons and have killed well more than the dozen or so reported from Iran.
Another similarity – yet also the strongest difference – is in the ‘democracy’ aspect of the protests. The Palestinians are denied any democracy that does not fit the U.S. supported Israeli occupation of the territories – in other words, no democracy, just keep yourselves under control. The Hamas government was democratically elected to the Palestinian government yet was fully denied as a ‘terrorist’ organization and not allowed to try the workings of power or even the workings of a partnership with Fatah.
The difference in Iran is that the democratic good guys are against the enemies of the U.S. rather than against a friend of the U.S. as in the Israeli case. More irony, more double standards are added when it is known that Mousavi was once a terrorist himself, supporting the U.S. hostage taking in 1979, and working as an avid anti-U.S. member of the revolutionary government before returning to civilian life. Turn about again, as the U.S. and Israel seem to believe that for Hamas a terrorist is always a terrorist and is not to be dealt with, while in Iran a terrorist seems quite capable of democratic action.
There are of course other parameters such that the two situations are not identical, but the overwhelming visual images are identical, the calls for more democracy are even stronger in Palestine where thousands have been killed in their actions against the internationally illegal and non-democratic dictates of the Israeli occupying forces – yet the U.S. does nothing. They are also doing ‘nothing’ in Iran, hoping that the CIA covert actions will help carry the day for the instigation of counter-revolutionary action that will help their grip in the strategic areas of the Middle East. Obviously, where convenient, democracy means nothing to the U.S., unless it becomes a pretext for their wider global strategies.
Iran, media and reality
Obama is trying to appear neutral in his comments towards Iran [at least up to the original publication of this article], a rhetorical trick that cannot conceal the ongoing U.S. manipulations within the region and indeed around the globe. Yes, there are problems with Iranian democracy – yes, the U.S. is a major part of that problem as it is elsewhere in the world. The domestic western media will continue to condemn Iranian government actions – and they will continue to do so without taking in the larger global context of U.S. interference there and elsewhere in the political and economic lives of global citizens.
The reality of the situation is one of confusion and the requirement of the current government to establish – or re-establish - its authority and ability to rule under whatever label. With the ongoing interference and threats from the U.S. on all sides, it would be difficult to imagine it doing much differently. With the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the escalations there and in Pakistan, any threat to stability only gives the U.S. a stronger grip on the region as it works the different components against each other. One only needs to look at the drastic security laws created in the U.S. after 9/11 to know how fears of foreign attack can be used to strengthen government absolutism.
No, I do not support any government actions that involve killing its own citizens. At the same time I do not support any U.S. interference, regardless of rhetoric, as their actions speak much more towards geopolitical control than concerns for democracy or nuclear proliferation. My perplexity remains – how can the U.S. media not be able to see the double standards that exist within U.S. policy towards Iran, towards Palestine, towards the Middle East, towards the world?