Wednesday, 28 December 2011

The Persian Problem.

There has been a lot of talk about war with Iran lately as a British embassy was attacked by protesters, the subsequent expulsion of Iranian diplomats from British soil and then Iran had shot down an American drone (as well as an explosion near the British embassy in Bahrain). The reasoning here is that the Islamic Republic is hostile to the West and Israel out of nothing more than anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism. It is secretly developing nuclear weapons and has long-standing ties with Hezbollah. The same people who are not the defenders of gay rights and women's liberation will refer you to the record Iran has on the rights of gays and women. There is no space in a theocratic state for democratic procedures except in a castrated form to ratify the decrees of the Islamist establishment. It is nothing less than the "clash of civilisations" Samuel P Huntington warned us about. This is the view of the situation crafted through the media and supported by members of the political class in the US, UK and Israel.

What's wrong with this picture? We should keep in mind that Saudi Arabia makes Iran look like the most flamboyant Gay Pride parade through San Francisco and no commentators are calling for Riyadh to be bombed into the stone-age. The Saudi Kingdom remains a major client-state of the US in spite of the religious superstructure which helps legitimate the House of Saud. The same goes for the criticism that the Islamic Republic is not a democracy, but a theocracy which aligns itself with the forces of militant Islam in its march against the West. It wasn't the Iranian government who lent billions of dollars to the Taliban, that was the work of Saudi Royalty and the American elite. Even more shockingly it was the Israeli government, not Tehran, which covertly financed Hamas many years ago to undermine the secular Palestinian Left. It was the University of Nebraska, not the University of Qom, which printed Jihadist manuals to be distributed throughout Pakistan in the 80s. The radicalisation of Pakistan took place under General Zia ul-Haq.

The particular form of political Islam in practice in Iran lacks any purely Qu'ranic origins, rather it is a hybrid which was developed in the 20th Century. It comes out of the works of Ali Shariati and the Islamist thinker Sayyid Qutb as well as Abul Maududi. Qutb called for an Islamist vanguard to rise above the corrupt influence of the West and lead the masses to the light of Islam. Maududi introduced the idea of an Islamic democracy, at the same time that he admired the Fascist movements of the 1930s. The most important figure for Iran is certainly the work of Ali Shariati which has since been compared to Catholic Liberation Theology. For in his work he fused the anti-imperialism of Frantz Fanon (a student of Jean-Paul Sartre) with the Shi'ite tradition, which had been apolitical for much of its history until then. It was then that the political Islam, we know all to well today, emerged in Iran as the old dictatorship melted under the heat of popular passions in the country. Shariati died before the revolution and never saw the established vision of Ayatollah Khomeini.

Christopher Hitchens made a brief reference to this in his talk on the "Axis of Evil" when he noted that there are 'discrepant' views of the relation of religion to the state in Shi'ite theology. It remains a serious theological discussion even after the rise of theocracy in Iran. It is worth noting that the Islamic Republic was established in reaction to the coup of '53 and stood on the back of a popular rebellion against a brutal regime. The Shah overthrown in 1979 had been installed by the CIA in 1953 to protect the interests of British Petroleum after the Iranian government sought to nationalise the country's energy resources. As Hitchens explained, in the new Islamist Iran, the Guardianship of the Jurists (normally an umbrella held over the vulnerable, mentally ill and so on) was extended to include the entire population under its protection. The central authority was from then on manifested in the Supreme Leader and the Guardian Council.

The media prefers to pick and choose from history rather than acknowledge the origins of the nuclear issue in Iran. It was the Shah who argued that Iran should have nuclear weapons because the US and Russia have them. Once Ayatollah Khomeini came to power the Iranian initiative to develop nuclear weapons came to an end. It was only as Iraq, with the support of the US, declared war on Iran that the Islamist regime decided to reopen the facilities. Incidentally, the reformist President Khatami wanted to lead Iran into the invasion of Iraq 20 years later alongside the US in order to "improve relations". The Bush administration then abruptly placed Iran on the "Axis of Evil". The invasion came in 2003 and the US then maintained occupations in Afghanistan and Iraq, both of which share borders with Iran. In fact Iran is surrounded on all sides by American client-states which could easily support or even be used as a base for an invasion some day.

There are signs that a covert war is already underway, it would seem, with the US and Israel as major aggressors supported by Britain and France. In the words of Seamus Milne at Stop the War "Covert support for armed opposition groups has spread into a campaign of assassinations of Iranian scientists, cyber warfare, attacks on military and missile installations, and the killing of an Iranian general, among others." Even the propaganda wing of the GOP has acknowledged that there may be a covert war being waged against Iran. It remains a real possibility that the US will trap itself into an all out war with Iran, which would undoubtedly be long and bloody. As the combination of harsh sanctions and growing threat of an attack on Iran from the American base on Diego Garcia could converge with the worst tendencies of American-Israeli foreign policy. Iran is perceived as a threat because of its independence from Washington as it stands as an alternative model for the Shi'ite masses which are oppressed in major oil providers such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Iraq.

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