Archive for the ‘Iran’ Category
This was written for the excellent Lobelog.
In August 2012 Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi attended a meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) in Tehran. His presence at the conference was something of a diplomatic victory for the Iranian leadership, whose relations with Egypt, the pivotal Arab state, had been at the lowest of ebbs since the 1979 revolution.
Egypt’s President Sadat laid on a state funeral for the exiled Iranian shah. A Tehran street was later named after Khalid Islambouli, one of Sadat’s assassins. Like every Arab country except Syria, Egypt backed Iraq against Iran in the First Gulf War. Later, Hosni Mubarak opposed Iranian influence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Palestine, worked with the US and Saudi Arabia against Iran’s nuclear program, and was one of the Arab dictators (alongside the Abdullahs of Jordan and Saudi Arabia) to warn darkly of a rising “Shi’ite cresent”. Not surprisingly, Iran was so overjoyed by the 2011 revolution in Egypt that it portrayed it as a replay of its own Islamic Revolution.
Iran also rhetorically supported the revolutions in Tunisia and Libya, the uprising in Yemen, and, most fervently, the uprising in Shia-majority Bahrain.
In Syria, however, Iran supported the Assad tyranny against a popular revolution even as Assad escalated repression from gunfire and torture to aerial bombardment and missile strikes. Iran provided Assad with a propaganda smokescreen, injections of money to keep regime militias afloat, arms and ammunition, military training, and tactical advice, particularly on neutralising cyber opponents. Many Syrians believe Iranian officers are also fighting on the ground.
A message from the father of the murdered nine-year-old Ibrahim Shayban to Russia, China and Bashaar al-Asad.
The Russian and Chinese vetoes to protect the Syrian regime from UN Security Council condemnation are reminiscent of all those American vetoes to protect Israel. Both countries have their reasons for shielding the Syrian regime: Russia’s naval base at Tartus, discomfort over the way the Libya No Fly Zone slipped into more overt intervention, the fear that UN condemnation may one day focus on Russian abuses in Chechnya and Chinese abuses in Tibet and Xinjiang. But both countries should consider their own interests more creatively. Ultimately, their influence in Syria and the wider region will depend on their image in Syrian and Arab eyes. The Syrian regime will not be there for ever. The Syrian people will.
Iran is another state which has repeatedly shot itself in the foot since the Arab revolutions began, first by mischaracterising as Islamic uprisings the deposings of Mubarak, Bin Ali and Qaddafi, then by opposing the revolution which seems most similar to Iran’s in 79 – the Syrian revolution. Iran used to be popular in Syria even amongst many sectarian-minded Sunni Muslims. It used to be popular in the wider Arab region. This popularity was Iran’s best guarantee against marginalisation and even military attack from the region’s pro-Western forces. But its popularity has evaporated this year.
Back to Ibrahim. He was martyred while leaving a mosque in the Qaboon suburb of Damascus. His funeral was held today in Meydan, in the heart of the city. Here’s some footage. Apparently insecurity forces killed two of the mourners when they came out of the mosque into the street.
Commentators have been telling us that central Damascus remains quiet. It’s true that many areas have been quiet, either because the upper middle class inhabitants still support the regime or are sitting on the fence, or because of the overbearing police and mukhabarat presence on the streets. Damascus has certainly not slipped out of regime control, as Homs, Hama, Deir ez-Zor and Idlib sometimes have. Yet Damascus has been bubbling for a long time. Pro-regime commentators will say that Kafar Souseh (which has demonstrated frequently since Shaikh Rifa’i of the Rifa’i mosque was shot) is a suburb, not the city itself – which is true, if Camden Town isn’t part of London. Suburbs further out – like Harasta, Douma, Muadamiya – have been veritable war zones for months. Imagine if Streatham, Hackney, Tottenham and Ealing were in a state of war and commentators told us ‘London remains quiet.’ And Meydan and Rukn ad-Deen have witnessed frequent, large demonstrations, and savage repression. These places are as central as Chelsea and Kensington. Smaller, briefer demonstrations have occurred in high-class Malki, in Sha‘alaan, Shaikh Muhiyudeen, Baghdad Street, Muhajireen. You can’t get more central. The last place is within earshot of Bashaar al-Asad’s house. If the quietness of Damascus reassures the regime, I think they’d better start panicking.
An interesting article in the Asia Times (republished in full after the break) states that “in recent weeks more and more former Iranian officials and academics have begun to speak out against the lack of complexity and nuance in Iran’s policy vis-a-vis the perceived deteriorating situation inside Syria.” The article also suggests that Hizbullah is rethinking its position. About time too.
The Asia Times continues: “talking to Iranian officials it appears that there is deep unease about the methods employed by the Syrian security forces which have allegedly killed up to 2,000 people since protests and violence erupted in March. In private, Iranian officials draw a comparison to how professionally Iranian security forces responded to widespread rioting and disorder in the wake of the disputed presidential elections of June 2009. They claim (with some justification) that the disorder was quelled with minimum loss of life.”
The article goes on to list reasons why Iran’s rulers expect the Asad regime to come out of the current unrest intact. Beyond an appreciation of the ruthlessness of regime violence, these include: “the divided nature of the Syrian opposition, the majority of whom hail from a Sunni Islamist pedigree. But deep down Iranian officials believe that Assad will survive because owing to his foreign policy posture and his impeccable anti-Zionist credentials, his regime is somehow more ‘connected’ to the deepest aspirations of his people, indeed the people of the region as a whole.”
I was on BBC Radio 4′s The World Tonight the other night to comment on the situation in Syria.
Then Jeb Sharp of the BBC interviewed me for PRI’s The World.
I ended my last post like this:
“Perhaps in six months’ time non-Arab commentators will decide that the Tunisian revolution was a mere anomaly in an eternally stagnant Arab world. But they’ll be wrong. The revolution will exert a long-term pervasiveness throughout Arab culture, as the Iranian revolution did before it. It will change the air the Arabs breathe and the dreams the Arabs dream.”
Well, it seems I was wrong on the timescale. I should have said six minutes. Today several commentators are indeed arguing that the Tunisian revolution is anomalous. Robert Fisk is pessimistic, contending that the Tunisian people are no match for the combined forces of the Tunisian elite and Western imperialism. Perhaps events will prove him right. Steve Walt fears that those expecting immediate regime change from the Ocean to the Gulf will be rapidly disappointed.
His point is a good one. In the frontline states with Israel, foreign policy issues increase in importance because they have the potential to immediately translate into security issues. The Syrian regime, for instance, may be unpopular for its corruption, bureaucracy, and stifling of dissent, but its foreign policy is broadly in line with Syrian opinion – and in Syria this matters a great deal. The Western clients are more vulnerable to protest, not least because they’re more linked into the ‘globalised’ economy and are thus more vulnerable to dramatic fluctuations in the price of essential goods. Yet even in Jordan legitimate fears of an Israeli intervention (perhaps an attempt to fulfill the Jordan-is-Palestine fantasy) could damp down effervescence. The public in many countries seems too split by sect, ethnicity or tribe to coordinate unified protest. And of course the regimes will now be battening down for fear of Tunisian contagion.
It’s important to remember that Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s speeches consist of more than mere rhetoric. One of the reasons for Nasrallah’s enormous popularity in the Arab and Muslim worlds is that, unlike other Arab leaders, he says what he means and means what he says. Hizbullah is the only force to have defeated Israel – once in 2000, when the brutal occupation of south Lebanon was brought to an end, and once in 2006, when Israeli troops attempted to reinvade in order to dismantle the resistance, but bled on the border for five weeks instead. During the 2006 war Israel bombed every TV mast it could find, but failed to put Hizbullah’s al-Manar off the air. Nasrallah spoke on al-Manar of “the Israeli warship that attacked our infrastructure, people’s homes and civilians. Look at it burn!” As Nasrallah uttered these words, a Hizbullah missile did indeed disable an Israeli warship, forcing Israel to move its fleet away from the Lebanese coast.
In mid-February 2010, Shaikh Nasrallah made a speech which may well mark a fundamental change in the Middle Eastern balance of power. The speech, quoted below, should not be read as a string of empty threats, but a signal of new weaponry and fighting capabilities.
We often project our current political concerns backwards in time in order to justify ourselves. I say ‘we’ because everyone does it. Nazi Germany invented a mythical blonde Aryan people who had always been kept down by lesser breeds. The Hindu nationalists in India imagine that Hinduism has always been a centralised doctrine rather than a conglomerate of texts and local traditions, and describe Muslim, Buddhist, Christian, Sikh, Jain and animist influences on Indian history as foreign intrusions. Black nationalists in the Americas depict ancient Africa as a continent not of hunter-gatherers and subsistence farmers but as a wonderland of kings and queens, gold and silk, science and monumental architecture. To our current cost, Zionists and the neo-cons have been able to reactivate old Orientalist myths in the West, myths in which the entirety of Arab and Islamic history has involved the slaughter and oppression of Christians, Jews, Hindus, women, gays, intellectuals .. and so on.
Such retrospective mythmaking frequently goes to the most absurd extremes in young nations conscious of their weakness or of a need for redefinition (America may be one of these). Probably for that reason it is particularly evident in the Middle East.
This is the extended version of a piece published in today’s Sunday Herald.
A strange calm prevails on the Middle Eastern surface. Occasionally a wave breaks through from beneath – the killing of an Iranian scientist, a bomb targetting Hamas’s representative to Lebanon (which instead kills three Hizbullah men), a failed attack on Israeli diplomats travelling through Jordan – and psychological warfare rages, as usual, between Israel and Hizbullah, but the high drama seems to have shifted for now to the east, to Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Arab world (with the obvious exception of Yemen) appears to be holding its breath, waiting for what comes next.
Iraq’s civil war is over. The Shia majority, after grievous provocation from takfiri terrorists, and after its own leaderhip made grievous mistakes, decisively defeated the Sunni minority. Baghdad is no longer a mixed city but one with a large Shia majority and with no-go zones for all sects. In their defeat, a large section of the Sunni resistance started working for their American enemy. They did so for reasons of self-preservation and in order to remove Wahhabi-nihilists from the fortresses which Sunni mistakes had allowed them to build.
The collapse of the national resistance into sectarian civil war was a tragedy for the region, the Arabs and the entire Muslim world. The fact that it was partly engineered by the occupier does not excuse the Arabs. Imperialists will exploit any weaknesses they find. This is in the natural way of things. It is the task of the imperialised to rectify these weaknesses in order to be victorious.
This was published in the Sunday Herald.
The mainstream media narrative of events unfolding in Iran has been set out for us as clear as fairytale: an evil dictatorship has rigged elections and now violently suppresses its country’s democrats, hysterically blaming foreign saboteurs the while. But the Twitter generation is on the right side of history (in Obama’s words), and could bring Iran back within the regional circle of moderation. If only Iran becomes moderate, a whole set of regional conflicts will be solved.
I don’t mean to minimise the importance of the Iranian protests or the brutality of their suppression, but I take issue with the West’s selective blindness when it gazes at the Middle East. The ‘Iran narrative’ contains a dangerous set of simplicities which bode ill for Obama’s promised engagement, and which will be recognised beyond the West as rotten with hypocrisy.
I don’t quite know why, but hypocrisy is the element in political discourse which catalyses my most murderous responses. Perhaps it’s because I like language, or respect it, and believe it shouldn’t be raped.
I remember Tony Blair making a speech in Gaza in November 2001. This is when I realised for certain that he was not a mere fool but a dangerous and filthy murderer. Away from the hall and its selected attendees, for the visiting dignitary’s comfort, a demonstration against British Zionism was being violently suppressed. And at that very moment British warplanes were ravaging Afghan villages. And Blair lectured his audience, representatives of those who’d been hounded and attacked for six decades, in the following terms: What you people must understand, he squeaked, is that no cause, however just you think it may be, justifies violence. Not a flicker of irony nor a trace of self-doubt wrinkled his ugly face.
CreativeSyria (see the link on the left) organises a ‘Creative Forum’ where bloggers consider an aspect of Syrian politics. This time the topic is Syria’s regional alliances. My contribution, which I copy below, is on CreativeSyria along with several more opinions. I think Wassim’s is excellent, far more comprehensive than mine. But here’s mine:
For a time the pattern of alliances in the Middle East was organised into monarchical-conservative and republican-nationalist camps. Following the 1991 Kuwait war, there was a realignment which pitted a Saudi-Syrian-Egyptian alliance against a disgraced and battered Baathist Iraq and its perceived allies such as the Jordanian monarchy. Because the Damascus Declaration countries were the three key Arab mashreq states, some pretence at the centrality of Arab alliances in the region was still possible. But since the 2003 invasion and subsequent dismantling of Iraq a new set up seems firmly established. On one side stands Syria, Iran, Hizbullah and Hamas; on the other Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, the March 14th Lebanese, Mahmoud Abbas, and (implicitly) Israel.
I’ve often thought that Abu Hamza al-Masri, the ex-imam of Finsbury Park mosque, must have been designed in a CIA laboratory. Not only did he – before his imprisonment – fulminate in a shower of spittle against various brands of kuffar, he also had an eye patch and a hook for a hand. You can’t imagine a more photogenic Islamist villain.
If my supposition is correct, then Tony Blair may well have been invented by the Iranian secret service, for of all the neo-cons he’s the one who most looks the part. I refer to the physiognomic combination of weakness and fury, the slight chin wobbling beneath that eye with its wild glint of certainty – the staring left eye, fixed on something the rest of us can’t see, something that makes reality irrelevant – and the teeth both fierce and mouselike, and the shininess of both forehead and suit. Most politicians wear suits, but few suits declare ‘hollow salesman’ so much as Blair’s. The voice too – the hurried speech and breathy tones of a public schoolboy approaching orgasm – that repulsive aural mix of complacency, stubbornness and privilege.
On January 11th, US occupation forces took five Iranian officials hostage from a diplomatic office in Arbil, Northern Iraq, prompting protests from the Kurdish regional authorities who had invited the Iranians. On February 4th, an Iraqi army unit under direct American command kidnapped an Iranian diplomat in Baghdad. These are incidents we can be sure of.
On February 14th, the anniversary of the bomb which killed Rafiq Hariri and many passersby in Beirut, eleven Iranian Revolutionary Guardsmen died when their bus was bombed by Jundallah, a Sunni fundamentalist and Baluchi separatist group active in southeastern Iran. Iranian authorities accused the US of involvement in the attack, a claim which is backed up by Seymour Hersh and several other analysts who have described American promotion of ethnic and sectarian conflict in Iran, and specifically American cooperation with al-Qa’ida linked anti-Shia groups throughout the region.
Murkier still are rumours that the US administration’s Iran Syria Policy and Operations Group is running a campaign to kidnap Revolutionary Guard commanders. Veteran Guardsman Alireza Askari either defected or was kidnapped during a visit to Istanbul in early February, and the fates of several other officers are unknown.
One of Iran’s top nuclear scientists, Ardeshir Hussainpur, died on January 18th. His death wasn’t announced until a week later, and the cause given then was ‘gas poisoning.’ The US security company Stratfor has said that the Israeli Mossad assassinated Hussainpur.
Meanwhile, there are now two US aircraft carrier batle groups in the Gulf, and Britain’s naval presence has recently been boosted.
This is the context in which 15 British sailors have been arrested by Iranian forces while patrolling the Shatt al-’arab waterway between Iraq and Iran. Immediately much of the Western media fits the event into the narrative of the American embassy hostage crisis. We are told, without a hint of irony, that the British navy is on the Shatt al-’arab to ensure that ‘intruders’ will be chased off. The British mission, writes Richard Norton-Taylor in the Guardian, is to ‘protect Iraq’s oil supply’ against ‘pirates, smugglers and terrorists.’ If the Anglo-American invasion and destruction of Iraq is seen against the background of the new oil law hurried through Iraq’s absentee parliament, the words ‘pirates, smugglers and terrorists’ seem apt descriptors of US and British forces. In any case, Western packaging of the story has made very little reference to the recent history of US kidnapping operations against Iranian targets, or to the fact that the Shatt al-’arab was one front in the disastrous Iran-Iraq war during which Saddam Hussain used Western arms and money to cover Iranian cities in poison gas.
Nobody has wondered what the British reaction would be if Iranian forces were found half a mile outside of British territorial waters (this is the British claim; the Iranians say the sailors had crossed the border). The press, ‘liberal’ and conservative, have remained largely loyal in framing the victim as the aggressor, the aggressor as the victim, once again. Watch this story carefully. It has the potential to escalate into a deliberately-plotted, nation-smashing tragedy. Once again.
My children have a Dreamworks animated film called AntZ. I suppose it’s better than the average American children’s film, but still, once you’ve watched 15 minutes you can predict both the conclusion and the moral message that will be rammed violently past your gullet for the next hour and a bit. As in very many Disney films for children or in the Hollywood versions for adults, the message is BE YOURSELF. BE AN INDIVIDUAL. STAND OUT FROM THE CROWD.
It seems contradictory that the country which feeds its children unto obesity with this message is also the country with the most conformist of populations. Americans are more likely than any other people to confuse their national identity with their state machinery, to identify themselves with their leaders and their flag, to believe that their country has a divinely-ordained manifest destiny. The ability of Americans to contemplate alternative perspectives on the world, or even to understand that people in different countries may not want to speak English or eat hamburgers, is severely limited. The declared ideology is individualism, but the reality is rigid conformism.
Many people will have seen the excerpt from an al-Jazeera discussion programme in which Iraqi MP Mish’an al-Jabouri and Iraqi journalist Sadeq Musawi threaten and scream at each other. The occasion is Saddam Hussain’s execution, and the cleavage is sectarian (al-Jabouri is Sunni and Musawi is Shia). Al-Jabouri calls on the audience to read the fatiha for the soul of the ‘martyred president.’ When Musawi objects and points out that Saddam killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, al-Jabouri says he will do ‘unimaginable things’ to Musawi, and calls him an Iranian, a Persian, and a Persian shoe. After Musawi has walked off, al-Jabouri demonstrates what looks to me like mental illness. He tells us that his own brother and brother-in-law were killed by Saddam, but that he nevertheless considers the martyr president to be the master of Iraq, and specifically the master of Musawi and Musawi’s parents. He regrets that Saddam was killed by “the same people who killed our master Umar and our master Abu Bakr.” Then he seems to remember that Abu Bakr wasn’t killed, and says “Sorry. The people who hate Abu Bakr and all the companions of the Prophet.”
I found al-Jabouri’s ranting tragic to watch. For people like him, sectarian hatred supercedes even family loyalty. And as far as he is concerned, anyone who disagrees with Baathist tyranny or Sunni dominance of Iraq is not Iraqi and not Arab, but Persian.