Open Letter to Iran’s Nobel Laureate

Dear Ms. Shirin Ebadi:

The appeal you and Mohammad Sahimi addressed to “Western democracies” in the International Herald Tribune on January 19 disappointed this former admirer of yours.  Your invitation to the current and previous imperial powers to intervene for human rights in Iran fails precisely on grounds of the noble principles you invoked to construct your argument.  These were:

  1. Respect for historical accuracy;
  2. Promotion of transparency; and
  3. Accountability on the part of the powerful.

I will address the second and third of these in my follow-up essay next week.

To be fair, I should add that this is a failure you share with most other Iranian reformists and revolutionaries, whose passion for “universal” democratic values is self-contradictory.  True, you reminded “the West” softly in your published commentary that it bears some responsibility for the current standoff with Iran.  But your remarks are primarily devoted to affirming the civilizing mission the imperial powers claim when they intervene in countries less dangerous than themselves.

To wit, you advise “Western nations with clean human rights records” to downgrade diplomatic relations with Tehran and to isolate it at the United Nations unless Iran rushes to become more like them.  You also ask the World Bank to stop lending to the Iranian government, and you urge the Europeans to make investment in Iran contingent on greater freedom of expression and political association.

Apparently you do not realize, Ms. Ebadi, that in the country that leads this pack, the United States, no third political party has been allowed by the two majors to emerge in at least a century.  Do you know that no candidate of any persuasion stands any chance of being nominated for a national office (and most other elected positions) unless the super wealthy class here greases his/her campaign wheels with cash?  You have rightfully complained elsewhere that the theocratic hierarchy limits political competition in Iran.  Does it not bother you then what happens to the aspirations of tens of millions of Americans whose spokespersons rarely win a seat unless they compromise their fidelity to their average constituents?

You are used to being adored as a fearless champion who speaks truth to power in Iran.  But when it comes to democracy and equality beyond Iran’s borders — the big picture — you stand with the anti-democratic powerful.  Therefore, your advocacy for the rule of law, pluralism, and human rights in the International Herald Tribune ends up contradicting these very ideals.

Is the humanistic intervention model you have in mind inspired by the international boycott that succeeded in ending Apartheid in South Africa?  But would you deny that Western powers to whom you appeal postponed the end of Apartheid as long as they could by surreptitious violations of that embargo?  Have you forgotten that it was troops from Cuba — a nation that the same Western powers do not deem worthy of being considered “democratic” — that served to roll back South African aggression in Angola?  What motivates you can’t be the remarkable pluralism that Iranians experienced when, during the Second World War, Reza Shah was forced to step down by the invading Allied forces, can it?  Or is the US-led wars of “liberation” against Yugoslavia your model?  More likely, what appeals to you is Europe’s current leveraging of European Union membership in the hope of forcing political opening in Turkey.

You rely on the dominant narrative of liberal democracy: that “totalitarian” states should not be appeased.  That is why Iranian reformist parties and your other Cold War-minded allies in the Iranian opposition often highlight the US-funded “velvet revolutions” of Eastern Europe, including the late versions in Georgia and Ukraine.

There is just one important detail missing in this narrative, Ms. Ebadi.  These arguments for “human rights” leave out the fact that your favorite guarantors of law and decency strengthened — or even prompted the rise of — the powers which they later dismantled.

In some cases, such as Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden, the West you so adore was the prime enabler behind the worst abuses in Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention the Northern Alliance murderers and rapists reinstated since 2001 as NATO’s enforcers in Afghanistan.  In Iran, the coup your enlightened neocolonial saviors arranged in 1953 left Iranians so little voice in their own affairs that the revolution of 1979 became inevitable.

When you were a judge in the former Shah’s corrupt bureaucracy, you must have seen up close who paid the price for the Western power play.  People like us did.  Did you ask for international help to counter human rights abuses then?

There are always competing versions of history, each of which offers a different path to “a better future.”  You are able to recommend humanistic foreign intervention as a salvation for Iranians only because you leave out how we reached where we are today. Consequently, the road to “a democratic future” that you suggest threatens to repeat history: it will take us further away from democracy by adding fuel to the fire of Western desire for undemocratic intervention in the affairs of Iran and other nations.  It reminds me of an American proverb: “the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.”

Is it any wonder that Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, condemns the Egyptian leadership as undemocratic and pleads with them the next day to undermine the democratically elected Palestinian Hamas, even as the election that put Hamas in power is certified by former President Jimmy Carter on CNN?

Ms. Ebadi, your premise in the International Herald Tribune editorial is that democratic governments, i.e., Western powers, are less dangerous than others.  This is another gross distortion of contemporary history, spread especially zealously by Neoconservative opportunists post-9/11, such as the so-called Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, Washington’s Israel mouthpiece, and its sponsor the Committee on the Present Danger. Need I remind you that it was this civilized bunch of Western powers that murdered tens of millions of their own on battlefields and in gas chambers in just three decades in the twentieth century? Even today, the United States is neither democratic (just ask the African American victims of Hurricane Katrina) nor peaceful.

Last April, I briefly debated the president of FDD, Clifford May, on MSNBC television about the merits of US funding of the opposition to make Iran more democratic and less dangerous.  I reminded him that vastly more people per capita are in prison in America than in any other country, bar none (according to the Department of Justice statistics).  I also mentioned that Iran has not attacked any other nation in three decades of theocratic rule, while the leader of model “Western democracies” has been a serial bomber-invader for at least a half century.

How do you, Ms. Ebadi, justify your assurance that a Western-oriented Iran would be a responsible atomic power when the only power to incinerate hundreds of thousands of civilians with atomic bombs, and one that is to this day unapologetic, is your “democratic” United States?  Where is your evidence for equating Western-style liberalization with nonviolence?

At a recent conference of Historians Against War, America’s famed Howard Zinn accused the Bush White House of misusing history to justify aggression.  When you claim that South Africa dismantled its nuclear weapons industry solely as a result of becoming democratic, you, too, falsify history, Ms. Ebadi.  It was with the acquiescence of “Western democracies” that the Apartheid regime acquired nuclear weapons know-how — the acquiescence that ended with Apartheid and the Cold War.  Is it not ironic that the West could entrust nuclear weapons to the white supremacist government of Apartheid South Africa but not to the African National Congress government of post-Apartheid South Africa?

Worst of all, you imply that Israel’s “democratic” credentials make it a trustworthy steward of nuclear weapons.  Have you forgotten that Israel, unlike Iran, has refused to join the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty?  Have you any idea that the Israeli government has for three decades been in the tight grip of some of the Middle East’s most fanatic religious kooks?  How dare you whitewash the brutal occupation of Palestine and the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians as “democracy”?  Is this the kind of human rights you envision for Iranians?

Based in Washington, DC, Rostam Pourzal writes about the politics of human rights for Iranian expatriate journals.