Sunday, 4 August 2013

Goodbye, Mr Ahmadinejad.


It’s good to see Mahmoud Ahmadinejad finally out of office. It was a shame that the protest fallout of the last election didn’t succeed in ousting him. Instead the thugs of the Revolutionary Guard were deployed and the demonstrations were crushed. The emergence of Hassan Rouhani as the next President should not be understood in separation from those events just four years ago. The violence of the state remains a flagrant memory for Iranians. The spectrum of Iranian politics may only be varying forms of conservatism. In this election it was particularly so, as the ‘Supreme Leader’ Khamenei sought to ensure the range of candidate was incredibly narrow. Even former President and veteran politician Rafsanjani was barred from entering the race. Yet it was Ahmadinejad’s crony who was rejected for an old ally of Rafsanjani and Khatami.

The long-term future of the clerical regime will be on the mind of the ‘Supreme Leader’, as it always has been, and it was clear that the continuity of the Ahmadinejad era may not be the wisest way of proceeding. Mysterious charges have come to pass against the outgoing President, which he will face in November and that in itself is significant.[1] It’s possible that the Islamic regime is looking to split the grass-roots opposition of the Green movement. If a series of reforms are passed it may be a way for the clerics to extend their rule by winning over more of the young and women as a base. That’s one possibility as the support of conservative Iran in conjunction with a police state may not be enough to guarantee the future of the Islamic Republic. At the same time, it’s worth noting that the ‘Supreme Leader’ may be able to offset serious reform at home through the Syrian conflict. The safe bet might be on reformist gestures rather than any substance.

As Patrick Cockburn has observed, Tehran is fully behind the Assad regime because the attempt at regime change in Syria is interpreted as a necessary precondition for a strike on Iran and possibly its Shi’ite allies in Lebanon and Iraq. In fact, the Iranian re
gime has just pledged 4,000 troops to the defence of the Assad dictatorship.[2] It’s astonishing that there can be a discourse on these events without any regard for history. The motivations in Tehran for backing Assad to the bitter end are hardly discussed. It is long forgotten now that the Syrians were the only regional powers to support Iran (along with Israel incidentally) in the savage war with Iraq in the 1980s. In those days the US found Saddam Hussein to be an adequate ally against Khomeini’s Islamic regime. Yet once the Gulf War came and went Hafez al-Assad became the preferred Arab despot for the Washington tyrannophiles.

If we examine history (itself a heresy in contemporary discourse) we find that we have been here before. The previous government to Ahmadinejad was headed by President Khatami and it posed as a shift to reform from the past administrations. The aims were to normalise the Islamic Republic and resituate it in the traditional role that Iran has played in the region. Elected in 1997 Mohammed Khatami relied on the support of the women’s vote, as reformists typically do, as well as the urban middle-classes. He convinced the ‘Supreme Leader’ to allow him to run because the system requires a steam valve to release the political tension built up after nearly two decades of conservative governments. It was a politically expedient sales-pitch to a faux-cleric who was once President himself. From all of this we can see that the Iranian leadership cannot be taken as ‘irrational’ or ‘crazy’.

The Khatami administration had no qualms with the structural adjustments to the Iranian economy. Indeed, Khatami was eager to speed up the processes of privatisation and deregulation which he had inherited from Rafsanjani. Likewise the aim of re-establishing Iran in its traditional role required a normalisation of relations with the US, as well as client-states like Israel and Saudi Arabia. It shouldn’t be forgotten that the traditional role of Iran was a ‘cop on the beat’ alongside mercenary-states such as Israel, Turkey and Pakistan. This is the crowd to which Rouhani belongs. In these terms it’s easy to see the appeal of the anti-imperial bluster with which Ahmadinejad straddled Iran for nearly a decade. The former Mayor of Tehran promised the Iranian people economic concessions, such as instituting pensions for the thousands of women who work as carpet weavers and were blinded by their occupation by the age of 40.[3] The backbone of conservative populism in Iran is the rural and urban poor, precisely those desperate enough to seek refuge in religion.

At the same time, Ahmadinejad offered crumbs to the poor and needy he opted for the Khomeini vision of Islamic Iran as the only alternative to the decadence of Western liberalism. This is the alternative to the Khatami propositions to normalise relations with Washington. It’s what has led Iran to forge alliances with Caracas as well as Moscow and even Pyongyang. Yet there must be a tension in the ruling-class of the country to allow for such a fluctuation between the ‘moderates’ and the ‘extremists’. The foreign policy of Iran remains completely rational in the terms understood by Iran’s intelligentsia. The development of nuclear power and the capability for nuclear weapons was originally a policy of the Shah. After seizing power Khomeini immediately had the reactors shut down, only to reluctantly reopen them once Saddam Hussein was developing weapons of mass-destructions and Iran needed a deterrent. So this is an old story, nothing new.

President Khatami sought to normalise relations with the US by lending intelligence support to the invasion of Afghanistan. It was saleable move as the Taliban had butchered Shi’ites and killed Iranian diplomats after which Khatami acted to prevent a war with Afghanistan. The Khatami government helped set up Hamid Karzai as the US objectives shifted from retaliation for the World Trade Centre attacks to regime change in Afghanistan. In return for these gestures Bush put Iran on the ‘Axis of Evil’ for its sponsorship of groups like Hezbollah. That was in early 2002 and months later when the US and Britain were looking for support to invade Iraq the incorrigible Jack Straw flew to Tehran. The memory of the insane war with Iraq was, and is, still haunting Iran. Khatami offered to provide assistance – in the form of intelligence, logistics and advice – to the forces looking to plunder Mesopotamia. The future of Iraq was no less insignificant than that of Afghanistan.

Jack Straw pitched the idea to Colin Powell, who found it appealing, but couldn’t convince the White House to get behind the idea. It may have been arrogance on the part of the Bush administration. Perhaps the Bushites feared the prospect of an emboldened Iran and its influence filling the void left-over from Saddam Hussein. In the end the US couldn’t hold-off elections and couldn’t prevent Iran from having a hand in the future of Iraq. It may have been inevitable in a predominantly Shi’a country. Neither Iran nor Iraq wants a re-run of the war that took place in the 80s. The prospect of peaceful relations between Iran and Iraq could lead to greater stability in the region, and that’s undoubtedly not what the US wants. The possibility of a Shi’ite alliance across West Asia is terrifying precisely because it could threaten the US control of the oil spigot.

Despite Washington’s intransigence the Khatami government sought a roadmap of improving US-Iran relations. Khatami wanted to hold talks with the US and put everything on the table. He offered to turn Hezbollah into a non-violent political organisation which accepted the two-state peace settlement.[4] In exchange Khatami hoped the US government would abolish all sanctions on Iran and refrain from instigating regime
change in Tehran.[5] It was drawn up through discussions between Khatami, Khamenei and others. According to a BBC documentary on Iran’s recent political history the ‘Supreme Leader’ actually gave his approval for 85% to 90% of the proposals. George W Bush sent a sharp message to Tehran by refusing to acknowledge or engage with the offer. The message was received and by the next election the ‘reformism’ of Mohammed Khatami had been written-off as a failure. Onto the stage marched Ahmadinejad with the blessing of the clerical establishment.

Now we have seen the process fall the other way. The terms Ahmadinejad spent in office reaped no great results for Iran. The intransigence and aggression of the West was hardly deterred by the absurd posturing of the crackpot statesman. Talk of war has been a recurrent theme in discourse for Americans, Europeans and Israelis. Meanwhile the huge costs incurred by the Iraq war meant the possibility of war with Iran unfeasible for a long time. Later, the Bush administration refused to back Ehud Olmert’s dream of bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities.[6] Yet the White House has since launched a campaign of assassination against nuclear scientists in the country. The US has even gone as far as to remove the MEK from its terrorist list.[7] It was a sweet ‘Thank You’ for the group’s cooperation in the campaign of bombing and killing Iranian scientists. It’s a strategy which has been coupled with economic strangulation in the form of sanctions, which may keep the Iranian people from rising up against the regime.

All the while Tehran is no doubt very aware of the threat posed by US military bases in neighbouring countries: the Fifth Fleet is based on Bahrain and the island of Diego Garcia has been utilised to station bunker-busters and nuclear submarines. It would be ridiculous to attribute any responsibility to Iran for this aggression. Lebanon was the battlefield between Israel and Iran in 2006, now it may be Syria’s turn. The effect of the Lebanon war was conservative in Iran; the Syrian civil war may have similar consequences. Time will only tell. The contradictions of Iranian society are turning, as always, in societies everywhere, towards a conclusion which will only be obvious in hindsight. The enemies of democracy in Iran include not just the ‘Supreme Leader’, but the US, Israel and Britain as well. Whether or not we see war in coming decades is very much up to us.

This article was later posted at the Third Estate on August 6th 2013.

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