Iran: The Game of Nations

There is a difference between the outlook of a secular generation of Iranian youth, yearning for a life in which religion (in the form of a clergy directing a theological state) refrains from meddling in their personal lives and individual fates as citizens, and the foreign and domestic policy considerations of the reformist trend.  A larger distance separates the premises of both of these groups from the calculations of the band of conservatives whose interests were harmed under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency and who now take issue with his domestic and foreign policies.  As different as their interests are domestically, all three have converged against Ahmadinejad and in favour of reducing the power of the supreme guide.  At the same time, their calculations converge in a national vision of Iran as a state that, in their opinion, should have matured beyond the founding principles of the Islamic Revolution.  Arab causes, in particular, do not figure high in their priorities, especially if supporting them conflicts with the aim of ending the international isolation and blockade of Iran.  If they are not opposed or reluctant to support Arab causes, they see such support primarily from an instrumental perspective.

Generally the tendency to enhance the concept and application of civic political life goes hand in hand with the strengthening of the concept and identity of the nation state.  The advocacy of the rights and duties of citizenship is not, as some might think, a pursuit of the rich, even if we acknowledge that the grassroots base for this movement derives primarily from the middle classes.  In the former socialist countries, the civil rights and nationalist movements also featured a reaction against the ideologically driven (or merely justified) role of the state that transcended national boundaries.  This helps explain the recoil in the countries of the former socialist camp against national liberation forces and in favour of Zionism.  Their one-party governments had led them to believe that their poor standards of living derived not from the stagnation of state capitalism, shackled by its cumbersome bureaucracy and the absence of supply and demand dynamics in systems of production and the distribution of resources, but from the support for peoples beyond their borders.  As a result, in the minds of the soviet public, economic straits were viewed as a compulsory sacrifice for the sake of others, and those others’ liberation movements abroad became associated with the official nomenclature and corrupt and undemocratic regimes at home.

This is what will happen in Iran.  Broad segments of public opinion will turn against Arab causes if the government does not strike an appropriate balance between civil liberties and maintenance of the domestic and external functions of the state.  As I have pointed out in previous articles, the institutions of government, constraints on political competition and sectarian bonds pose formidable obstacles to such a development in Iran.  Meanwhile, with the institutionalisation of the revolution, the chief obstacle to its fundamentalists is to be found in the people’s aspirations for civil rights and their expectations from the state, and subsequently the coalescence of these aspirations and expectations into political camps rivalling for power.

The gap between US and European foreign policies and goals in Iran, on the one hand, and the question of citizenship in Iran and in these Western countries, on the other, is considerably larger than the gaps described above.  The US and European aim, at present, is to halt the Iranian nuclear programme and Iranian cooperation in Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan.  Internally, the West promises to lift sanctions and the blockade as a reward for Iranian policy changes.  Once it does, we will find that the Iranian economy and society is quite capable of assimilating into the global market, probably more so than its neighbours.  We will also find that the Iranian lifestyle will change, as a result, at least in the direction that the middle classes hope for, and that the West by this point will pay little attention to Iranian civil and political rights, matters that will be left to the Iranians themselves to deal with.

The West’s stated desire for dialogue with Tehran to persuade it to rein in its nuclear ambitions while simultaneously conspiring against Iran both inside the country and externally is part and parcel of the “game of nations”.  The idea is to weaken Iran in negotiations.  If the regime in Iran collapses in the process, no one in the West will shed a tear.  But the brains in the ruling establishment know that Iran will survive the crisis, which is why they have stopped meddling for a moment.  They do not want to drive Iranian negotiators away from the negotiating table, which would cause more headaches for Washington in other complicated issues in which Iran has a role to play.  It is important to bear in mind that not a few of those congresspersons whose hearts have gone out to the young Iranian protesters in recent days were not that long ago clamouring to dispatch bombers and missiles, which would have made no distinction between the protesters and the basij, or between reformists and conservatives.  Some of those who are shedding tears over the young woman who was killed during the suppression of the demonstrations in Tehran have supported the killing of millions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine and Lebanon.  John McCain had effectively made “Bomb, bomb, bomb Iran!” one of his campaign slogans.  When campaigning for the presidential nomination, former New York Mayor Rudi Giuliani hoped that military action against Iran could be limited to conventional weapons, but he did not rule out the idea of a nuclear bomb if need be (CNN, 5 June 2007).  How many girls in jeans or in dresses or in chadors — or ready to throw off their chadors — was he ready to wipe out?

But the more significant piece of news at this particular time is the appointment of Dennis Ross as the special envoy on Iran.  During the run up to the US presidential elections Ross was the Israeli lobby’s point man for persuading the Obama and McCain campaign teams to sign a pledge that their candidate would prevent Iran from obtaining the ability to produce a nuclear weapon if their candidate won the elections.  Both campaign headquarters signed the required pledges.  Yet, almost a year earlier, the National Intelligence Estimate produced by 16 US intelligence agencies (the publication of which Dick Cheney tried to suppress) concluded that there was no evidence that Iran had plans to produce a nuclear weapon.  That did not stop Ross from publishing an article in the Wall Street Journal entitled “Everyone Needs to Worry about Iran.”  This man, who called for tougher sanctions against Iran to the point of closing navigation routes to Iranian oil exports, who advocated as a next stage barraging Iran with missiles to paralyse its ability to produce any technology whatsoever for decades to come, who launched his campaign against Yasser Arafat before the ink on the Oslo Accords dried, who obstructed the full return of the Golan Heights to Syria during the Geneva negotiations, who was appointed by the Jewish Agency to head the committee on Israel-Diaspora relations, is the man who will have Obama’s ear on Iranian affairs.  Now that is quite a piece of news.

Meanwhile, as American attention hones in on election irregularities in Iran, one’s mind strays to a large and important Arab country.  This major ally of the West signed a peace agreement with Israel and deregulated its economy, bringing a sweeping change to its lifestyle, a gaping chasm between rich and poor, as well as a broader margin between reality and civil and individual freedoms on the way.  Now, to the West, election rigging in that country is more in the nature of a form of entertainment.  There one sees every conceivable type of “irregularity”, from artificial voter turnout figures and faked results to full-fledged thuggery at polling stations.  Reports and even pictures of candidates and voters being cudgelled before, during and between the polling rounds elicited little more than disapproving clucks in Western capitals.  I recall the scene of one defiant activist from the ruling party stuffing hundreds of ballots into the box, totally indifferent to the camera lens.

There is no need to comment on Netanyahu’s great admiration for the courage of the demonstrators in Iran.  However, when the sedate and sober Economist, noted for its detached coverage of the cold logic of free market capitalism and privatisation regardless of their human tolls, suddenly and without advanced warning gets teary one immediately pricks up one’s ears.  In its latest edition (20- 26 June) it bemoans the possibility that Iran’s “new-found spirit of liberty” may already be “broken”.  It goes on to surmise that the election results must have been rigged because Mousavi had been expected to win.  I was so taken aback by this unusual sentimentality from The Economist that I turned back to the edition that went to press on the eve of the Iranian elections.  Not a single piece of news about the forthcoming polls; let alone a prediction regarding the outcome.  Could the journalistic nose of this venerable magazine have sunk so low?  If the reformists had been expected to win, as it claimed after the elections, how could it have overlooked such an important forecast before the elections, given how central Iran and the Gulf are to the global economy and the security and politics of the West?  No, The Economist would not have missed something like that.

Time magazine devoted pages to a portrait of Mir-Hussein Mousavi, introducing readers, probably for the first time, to what a nice guy he is, and talented too — a painter and an engineer, with a nice home and a family.  Ahmadinejad does not have a family, or a nice backyard, or artistic talents that we know of, so he is obviously not worthy of Time.  And to think that the Americans had once regarded Mousavi, a former foreign minister of Iran, as one of those shadowy figures who had supported “terrorism” against them in Lebanon and other parts of the world in the 1980s.

Such is the nature of Western media.  It painted a halo around Arafat and bestowed on him a Nobel Peace Prize when needed.  But when he stopped listening to the cues, it painted horns on his head, killed him politically and paved the way to his physical death.  One imagines that Mousavi would have been in for the same treatment if he had won the elections and then refused to take his enthusiasm for opening up to the West beyond a certain point.

Twitter is another phenomenon altogether.  A media machine that before the events in Iran was worth $250 million, it attracted between $20 and $30 million worth of investments per year at a time of economic recession (and without a publicised economic plan or even publicity).  The names on its management team overlap with those on the management teams of Facebook and YouTube, and they have stepped forward to offer the US State Department advice on how to use “alternative media” in enhancing US policy in the Middle East (see The New Yorker, 5 November 2007).  Of course, the possibilities that the alternative media or social utilities offer are truly amazing and one can understand the enthusiasm.  However, there is a difference between a youth or a progressive intellectual who puts considerable thought and effort into gathering information and processing it into an article that he can convey to others by bypassing the establishment media, on the one hand, and, on the other, a financed network with unidentifiable participants.  The Twitterers on Iran speak and write in English.  One cannot even ascertain whether they were really from Iran.  The messages are brief — a phrase, a slogan, a titbit of information.  Perhaps some of it is true, but there is undoubtedly a lot of hearsay, rumour and falsehoods mixed in there.  There was no way to ascertain the source or the veracity.  There were pictures and video clips, but how can you tell when and where they were actually taken?  Iranians took part, certainly.  But Israelis and Americans did too, in far larger numbers, and some of these claimed to be Iranian.  In short, a surrogate revolution was being waged for the Iranian people between one cappuccino and the next from people’s homes in Nebraska and Oklahoma.

To put this phenomenon into perspective as far as the recent events in Iran are concerned, only a third of Iranians have Internet access.  Moreover, if 74 per cent of Canadians with Internet access had never heard of Twitter before the events in Iran, how many Iranians knew about it?  Some groups of youth succeeded in outwitting the official media.  However, that does not make them a better or more reliable source of information.  When you hear Israeli fabrications of the sort, “Hizbullah and Hamas recruits were seen beating demonstrators in Tehran,” which have that familiar ring of, “Iranian revolutionary guards are fighting in Lebanon and Gaza,” you know that something is not quite right with this alternative news source.  There may be less control over content, but there is also less professional responsibility and less scrutiny.  One could come across an excellent and thoroughly documented article that would never see the light of day in the mainstream media.  But one suspects this would be a gem in a more general stream of ignorance, fiction, and hysteria.  Some Arab and Western sites are garbage dumps.

In all events, these are not the models of the concerned American citizen.  This is not to disparage the many excellent, carefully thought out and researched articles on events in Iran that criticise Iran but also criticise more harshly the role their country played in them.  However, the test of civil consciousness in the US is not to be found in the mainstream media, in which the US ruling establishment has invested considerably money and interests, and in which the Israelis have entered big time.  It is to be found in the millions of Americans and Europeans who in their day-to-day lives exercise rights that are not available to us in our countries.  True, they are prey to the invasion of the media spectacle into the very way they view the world, but some fight to protect their private sphere against such totalitarianism.  Many also contribute to the public sphere, advocating civil and human rights, fighting to protect the environment, and defending social economic justice against the huge corporations that are driven only by profit.  Some also campaign for the rights and freedoms of other peoples who are the victims of their own country’s policies.  That type of civil life is out there and many practice it.

While an organised nation state such as Iran can weather such a massive assault, shielding itself behind its national project and institutions, imagine what effect it would have on a pre-state region such as the Arab world.  Everything in this region screams the absence of the nation and citizenship in equal measure.  This absence produces only various configurations of rulers and subjects: tribal, sectarian and dynastic leaders and followers.  Here, one still speaks in terms of family, kin, religious and regional origin and affiliations, not in terms of substance.

In their partial to total absence of a national and civic life, the Arabs are more than vulnerable to media winds: the slightest media breeze sweeps them up and scatters them like leaves.  So you get reactions that vary from parroting the New York Times and even Twitter, and the translation into Arabic and dissemination of the most outrageous Israeli lies and rumours, to the deafening of ears to any piece of information or opinion, the only common denominator between them all being lack of scrutiny and critical thought.

Azmi Bishara is a Palestinian holding an Israeli citizenship.  Former Knesset member, he was compelled to leave Israel due to political persecution.  He is still the leader of Balad.  This article was first published by Al-Ahram Weekly No. 954 (2-8 July 2009); it is reproduced here for educational purposes.  Read it in Arabic: إيران وشجون أخرى: الصورة من زاوية المواطنة   See, also, Azmi Bishara, “Iran: An Alternative Reading.”