Robin Yassin-Kassab

Demonising Iran

with 7 comments

This was published in the Sunday Herald.

Two manifestations of Iranian modernity

Two manifestations of Iranian modernity

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. 

Iran’s claims of Western incitement for the protests are roundly scorned in our media, and of course Khamenei’s scapegoating of foreigners and “terrorist groups” demonstrates an unhealthy denial of the very real polarisation within Iranian society. Yet Iranians still have good reason to fear outside interference. It was, after all, British and American orchestrated riots that brought down the elected Mossadeq government in 1953. And in 2007 Bush administration neocon John Bolton told the Telegraph that a US attack on Iran would be “a last option after economic sanctions and attempts to foment a popular revolution had failed.” According to veteran journalist Seymour Hersh, ongoing US special operations in Iran include funding ethnic-separatist terrorist groups such as the al-Qa’ida linked Jundallah in Baluchistan. With some honorable exceptions, this dimension has not been touched by the mainstream media.

And Mousavi’s vote-rigging allegations are accepted without scrutiny, despite there not yet being any hard evidence of organised cheating. The official result is similar to that in the second round of the 2005 elections, when Ahmadinejad received 61.7 % to former President Rafsanjani’s 35.9 %. A few weeks before the latest elections, a poll commissioned by the BBC and ABC News predicted a nationwide advantage of two to one for Ahmadinejad over Mousavi. Even Israel’s Mossad chief Meir Dagan reported that there were no more irregularities in the Iranian vote than in elections in liberal democracies.

I visited Iran in 2006, with a backpack and guidebook-standard Farsi. I noticed two things. First, Iran is far freer, fairer, less littered, and more literate than any of its neighbours. Second, very many Iranians are unhappy with their corrupt rulers and, unlike people in nearby Arab states, they are not afraid to say so openly. To an extent the revolution has been a victim of its own success, having transformed a largely feudal land into a highly educated urban society, creating along the way a swollen middle class and an idealistic youth which chafes against the petty oppression of dress codes and state-enforced morality. But everyone I spoke to favoured evolution of the existing system over counter-revolution.

The Islamic Republic has been a great – if seriously flawed – experiment in economic and strategic independence, its engines oiled by class consciousness and national pride as much as by religion. Iran is at least a semi-democracy, and has held ten presidential elections in thirty years. Iranian women are obliged to cover their hair, true, but women in US-client Saudi Arabia are obliged to cover their faces. In Saudi Arabia of course there are never any elections to dispute – but there are US military bases, so we don’t dwell on the issue.

Here’s the nub of it. Iran opposes the US military presence in the region, and vigorously supports resistance to Israeli expansionism. On these two points, the Iranian regime is closer than any other to the true sentiments of Middle Easterners.

And this, fundamentally, is why Iran is imagined to be such a problem in the West: because it’s a Venezuela or a Cuba of a country. Iran is troublesome not because it’s any more obscurantist or dictatorial than its neighbours, but because it is less submissive.

The world worries about Iran’s nuclear energy programme while keeping quiet about Israel’s 200 nuclear weapons. Israel occupies Syrian, Lebanese and Palestinian territory. Iran has not attacked another country in its modern history.

Iran is accused of backing terrorism because it helps to arm Hizbullah and Hamas, grassroots anti-occupation groups with a legitimate, even legal, cause. Both groups have targetted civilians (rarely, in Hizbullah’s case) but not on as grand a scale as Israel, which is armed and funded by the United States. And Iran doesn’t export Wahhabi-nihilist terrorists of the Taliban or al-Qa’ida-in-Iraq variety. Again, that would be our ally Saudi Arabia.

President Obama recently chose to address the Muslims from Cairo, seat of a client regime which has ‘pre-emptively’ arrested hundreds of democrats in recent months, fearing they may demonstrate. Commenting on Iran, Obama called the “democratic process” a “universal value”. But obviously not quite universal enough to cover Egypt, or the elected Hamas government, what remains of it, in beseiged Palestine.

Silences can be more significant than words. Is Obama also “deeply troubled” when Israel shoots unarmed protestors or arrests children as young as twelve? Does he mourn “each and every innocent life that is lost” in Gaza as well as in the plusher streets of Tehran? If so, he still hasn’t told us.

At present our opinion formers are blithely simplifying and demonising a complex culture, allowing illusions and half-truths to become shining certainties in our minds. This is how we arrived in Iraq.

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

June 28, 2009 at 11:16 am

7 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. The new blog look is way better Robin, much easier on the eye and readable. A larger and nicer font, better contrast, and pictures with the articles add value to your already interesting text.



    June 29, 2009 at 9:54 am

  2. Thanks, Simon. WordPress is so much easier. I’m gradually working back through the posts adding illustrations.


    June 29, 2009 at 10:43 am

  3. Nice new site–‘better Robin’ indeed. This piece offers valuable insight into how Iran fits into the regional and global picture. There’s an irony here, of course: that Iran’s culture of democracy makes it an ideal potential partner for an America that would act like…a democracy.

    I’ll start working my way backwards through your recent posts now that my schedule is loosening its grip on my throat.


    Adrian Barnes

    June 29, 2009 at 11:21 pm

  4. You’re absolutely correct that in supporting resistance movements, Iranian policies are closer to the sentiments of Middle Easterners than are the policies of Arab governments. But are these policies rooted in a desire for justice? No. They are Iran’s policies because they serve its interest in projecting power and influence in the region (self-interest being the organizing force of any foreign policy).

    Also, it’s been my experience that while Iran’s policies may resonate with people in the Middle East, few people I’ve met in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan would want to live under a government like Iran’s.

    Your observations about Iran are somewhat outdated. Since you were there in 2006, people have become increasingly wary of speaking out against their government (I was last there 6 months ago and I’m sure its far worse now).

    Iran WAS a semi-democracy. However this month’s presidential election was a turning point. The government has sent a clear message that even this outlet for people to express their wishes has been blocked. If you don’t accept that the results were manipulated (as I gather you do not) you must surely accept the right of people to gather and demonstrate without being shot, beaten, tear-gassed, arrested and tortured.

    No one can dispute your arguments about the hypocrisy of American foreign policy, the roots of the enmity between Iran and the west and your critique of those the U.S. calls her friends in the region. But in doing so, let’s not imagine Iran to be something its not. Iran is a wonderful and dynamic country. We can only hope that someday “evolution of the existing system” comes to pass.

    K. Rund

    July 8, 2009 at 12:50 am

  5. I can only repeat, K Rund, that Iran is far more democratic than its neighbours. The majority of people that I have met in Syria admire Iran very much. And I have no problem at all with Iran’s pursuit of its self-interest if that results in supporting anti-Zionist resistance.

    Of course I support the right of people to protest without being shot. Have I said otherwise? My focus here was on the Western narrative. What has happened in Iran is appalling, but it’s not nearly as bad as Tiananmen Square, or Burma, or Israel, etc etc.


    July 26, 2009 at 11:17 pm

  6. […] It confirms their cynicism. Republicans and the Taleban see completely eye to eye on this matter. Here is a summary by Robin Yassin-Kassab of how those people perceive American initiatives, which takes […]

  7. The thing which has been airbrushed most successfully out of Western accounts of recent history in the region is the war the US fought with Iran through a client and proxy, Saddam Hussein. This was Iran’s equivalent of the First World War and makes the British intervention in 1953 look rather trivial – though the British stranglehold on the Iranian economy for decades through its ownership of its oil was not.

    David Derrick

    October 13, 2009 at 10:28 am

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: