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U.S. Intentions and Options in Iran: A Response to Stephen Zunes

In a recent assessment, Stephen Zunes affirms the misconceptions of a segment of the progressive community about Iran’s internal politics, the range of U.S. options in that country, and the frequency with which Western powers invent and/or corrupt civil society movements.  After a review of past American interference, he enumerates and rejects Washington’s hostile choices in Iran today, but stops short of recommending or even mentioning mutual recognition and reconciliation as a possibility.  Nor does he question the pervasive U.S. propaganda that portrays Iran as a danger to peace.  His omission plays into the hands of the far right “freedom lobby” (including the revived Committee on the Present Danger) that rejects “appeasement” in America’s policy towards Iran. 

The reasoning behind Zunes’ bias becomes clear quickly as he devotes a third of his essay to arguing falsely that Iran’s leadership is internally isolated, vulnerable, and unstable.  To convince the reader, he cites nothing more than the arrests of a few dozen activists and U.S.-based Iranians this year.  He offers little evidence that would indicate minority rule and “conspiracy theories” characterize Iran more than they do the United States, which has to incarcerate more of its civil society than any country on earth to maintain order and preserve the status quo.  Overthrowing Iran’s government is necessary and foreign-sponsored training workshops are wholesome in Zunes’ view as long as the insurrection does not seem to be “actually plotting with the Bush administration in offering specific instructions on how to overthrow the regime.”  Why?  Because motivated by their distrust of government, “[h]istorically individuals and groups with experience in effective mass nonviolent mobilization tend to come from the left.”  The record does not support such optimism.

I wonder how Zunes would reconcile that sweeping statement with the right-wing Proposition-13 mobilization in the late 1970s that nonviolently slashed “government tyranny” (read popular services) in California by spending millions of dollars to dupe the voting public into giving the rich a massive tax break.  Would he support the far-right school voucher “grassroots movement,” generously underwritten by the likes of Bradley Foundation, to impoverish public schools even further than Prop-13 clones have succeeded in doing nationwide?  How about the forty-odd civil society groups in the U.S. that, as investigative journalist Chris Mooney uncovered in 2005, front for Exxon and other Big Oil interests to discredit the scientific consensus about the man-made causes of global warming?  These and hundreds of well-known similar cases in the U.S. alone demonstrate that neither civil society nor mass nonviolent mobilization is necessarily progressive or liberating.  I do not think I need to convince the reader that the U.S. ruling elite labors incessantly to impose this elitist shrink-the-government ideology on the rest of the world.

Continuing with the same logic, Zunes offers without citing his proof that “Indeed, those in the Iranian regime correctly recognize that the biggest threat to their grip on power comes not from the United States, but from their own people.”  As a result, Zunes feels free to characterize the Iranian government as an imposed “regime” (the Washington imperial elite’s label for leaders of blacklisted “rouge states”) while referring to its U.S. counterpart as “the administration.”  The former is “reactionary,” “hardline,” and mired in delusional “conspiracy theories,” while the U.S. leadership is legitimate but simply misguided now and then in its foreign policy.  This despite the fact that time and again a larger proportion of the population votes to elect from among a larger field of approved candidates in Iran than in the United States.

Zunes doesn’t directly question George Bush and company’s sincerity as they claim to be working for “democratization” through regime change.  Instead, he only warns that a military attack or a coup would be impractical and ineffective ways of making sure “freedom will come to Iran.”  But he does not ask whether outside intervention is immoral.  Thus his case would fall apart before the neoconservative argument that benevolent foreign occupation resulted in democracy in Japan and Germany and should therefore be attempted in Iran.  Never mind that Iran, unlike Germany and Japan, has not attacked another nation in over two centuries.  Zunes’ reasoning leaves us wondering if a hypothetically more powerful aggressor than the United States would be justified in liberating Americans from their corrupt and unrepresentative government.

I hear echoes of self-righteous Cold War rhetoric, like “the Iron Curtain” and the “the Free World,” in Zunes’ language, his emphasis on nonviolence notwithstanding.  Most of us are old enough to remember the genocidal policies that flowed in Indochina, Indonesia, Central America, and southern Africa from Washington’s obsessive anti-communist mentality.  Today America’s sanctions-and-divestment hawks can find comfort in Zunes’ libertarian analysis as they spread the notion that Iran’s economy must be wrecked nonviolently in order to hasten the crippling “civil society” strikes, boycotts, civil disobedience, and mass protests that Zunes recommends.  Think back to the summer of 1973, as the counter-revolutionary nonviolent strikes and mass protests prepared Chile for the bloody takeover of General Pinochet and his fascist cohorts.

Arguing that Iran’s government is illegitimate and does not speak for the Iranian nation gives Washington the excuse it desperately needs to reject détente and push for war or aggressive containment.  Zunes could have instead recommended that the United States negotiate directly and in good faith with the Islamic Republic to settle the full range of issues that divide the two governments and destabilize the Middle East.  The democratic blossoming that Zunes apparently wishes for would be more likely to materialize, and sooner, if the Iranian government were engaged (and respectfully criticized) rather than isolated and endangered.


Based in Washington DC, Rostam Pourzal writes regularly on the politics of human rights.   MRZine has also published Pourzal’s “Market Fundamentalists Lose in Iran (For Now)” (3 August 2005); “Open Letter to Iran’s Nobel Laureate” (27 February 2006); “Open Letter to Iran’s Nobel Laureate: Part 2” (9 March 2006); “The Shah: America’s Nuclear Poster Boy” (25 May 2006); “Iranian Cold Warriors in Sheep’s Clothing” (20 May 2006); “MEK Tricks US Progressives, Gains Legitimacy” (12 June 2006); “What Really Happened in Tehran on June 12? Did Human Rights Watch Get It Wrong?” (18 June 2006); “Iran’s Western Behavior Deserves Criticism” (24 June 2006); “Iranian Anti-Censorship Crusader Accepts Censorship at Amnesty International” (19 July 2006); “An Israeli Attack Can Shatter the Relative Safety of Iran’s Jews” (28 July 2006); “Let’s Not Trivialize Discrimination in Iran” (22 May 2007); “With Defenders Like Nazanin, Who Needs Enemies?” (5 June 2007); and “With Defenders Like Nazanin, Who Needs Enemies? Part 2” (18 June 2007).



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