Demonising Iran

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.

15 thoughts on “Demonising Iran”

  1. “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 %.”

    This is a load of CRAP! Day after day, the official web site of the ministry of interior is modifying their OWN published lists, WHY?

    and, WHY is it that a vote count that led to announcing Ahmadinejad a winner in TWO HOURS after the closure of polls cannot be repeated?

    and WHY is it that in some ridings (according to the ministry of interior lists) Ahmadinejad has 100% of votes? You assume that even Mousavi’s camp managers (volunteers) DID NOT vote for him?

    And quoting “Israel” sanctioning Iran’s election?


  2. I am assuming Robin doesn’t receive emails being asked to “identify student protesters” and report them!!!

    Well I DO! And I call Iranian government a FASCIST one, HELPED by the likes of Robin Wright, and Israel and Bush!

  3. I think there is an overall problem with the argument in this article that Iran is little understood and demonized and therefore we have no right to accuse its government of any potential wrong doing.

    There are several shaky premises upon which this argument is based:

    To compare the 2005 second round with the 2009 first round is not at all comparing like against like. In 2005 a failure of the reform movement to unite behind a single candidate, some highly dubious practices on the part of supporters of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the unpopularity of Rafsanjani all conspired to hand a large second round victory to the current president.

    If a reformist candidate had been allowed to compete against Ahmadinejad in the second round which Mehdi Karroubi believes that he should have been allowed to do, the picture we see today could have been very different.

    At the time of the ABC and BBC polls there was indeed an expectation of an Ahmadinejad victory but this fails to take into account the final weeks of campaigning – the only weeks in which opposition to Ahmadinejad was even allowed to campaign – which produced a stunning turnaround in Iranians’ attitude to the elections and the state of the country’s democracy in general. Having followed this trajectory closely from the ground here in Tehran the shift was unmistakable, and indeed, revolutionary in that Iranians felt once again that their votes really could mean something for the future of the country.
    That Ahmadinejad was declared the victor sparked much controversy, protest and, in the end, violence.

    Foreign media may well be guilty of a certain degree of opportunism here. Certainly, other countries with dubious political practices receive less attention but to fall equally far into an opposite camp simply in reaction to this trend is in itself a kind of opportunism. What Iran does or does not do in its support of groups such as Hamas or Hizbollah is quite irrelevant to this debate. As are Israeli nukes – or indeed Iranian nukes. To say that Iran is so complex that we can say nothing about it is actually just cutting off the possibility of debate.

    What is happening in Iran currently with the ascendancy of the Revolutionary Guards through the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the support of the Supreme Leader is certainly more than just the old canard of liberals vs. fundamentalists but it is far from incomprehensible due to Iran’s “complex culture”. That Iran has more democracy and civil liberties than Saudi Arabia (not hard) does not excuse the hijacking of its political system by what amounts to a “palace coup”.

    But the biggest mistake for me is to associate the current protest movement with the idea of counter-revolution. This is implicitly to agree with the Ahmadinejad rhetoric that his presidency has been and will continue to be the valid heir to Iran’s revolutionary tradition. As Slavoj Zizek put it, throwing a few crumbs to the lower classes does not make one a socialist reformer. Nor does his heavy-handed anti-western rhetoric automatically make him a protector of Iran’s interests abroad. I agree that a voter turnout of over 80% does not suggest a population which is disillusioned by its government but that statistic is far better explained, to my mind, not as an endorsement of quiet evolution but as a reawakening which reversed the political apathy which characterized the late Khatami years.

    This year’s turnout was a protest vote encouraged by a very vibrant debate on Iran’s future which was in large part energized by a Mousavi campaign which successfully tapped into Iran’s current zeitgeist – the growing feeling that Iran needs a balanced, pragmatic, planning-oriented government run by professionals and experts. The current severe crackdown on many of those who were criticizing Ahmadinejad during the campaign on grounds of his lack of the aforementioned qualities does not suggest to me a government confident of the popular support.

    Demonizing Iran is one unhelpful extreme in reporting on the current situation but that does not mean that we must become apologists for a government which resorts to rotten tactics to pursue what is looking increasingly like a premeditated power grab.

  4. Naj – I don’t see how your comments make the 2005 election results, and their similarity to these, a load of crap. You ask why Ahmadinejad was declared a winner 2 hours after polls closed. I ask why Mousavi declared himself a winner before the polls closed? There are certainly suspicious anomalies, but, I repeat, not yet any hard evidence of deliberate cheating. So why, therefore, does the western media swallow Mousavi’s claims uncritically?

    As for the oppression of the protestors, I think the article makes it clear that I absolutely oppose this. This is PULSE’s editorial line too, to the extent that we have one.

    There are obviously serious tensions within Iran which go far beyond the election. I wish the regime was more flexible and intelligent in dealing with these. If it continues as it is doing, at some point in the future the revolution will be lost. As a Syrian and a lover of Palestine, I think this would be a tragedy, because there is so much anti-imperialist good in Iran as well as the (corrupt, moralising) bad.

    1. Chapter 14 in the article below ( quoted via hyperlink already on pulsemedia) explains that the annoucements of results 2 hours after the election was not all that unexpected , nor operationally unusual.

      The results were also in line with the few polls that were conducted.

      There seems to have been a slight confusion between announcement of results and the formal ratification timeline.

      1. Keyhan, the Iranian newspaper closest to Ahmadinejad wrote that he would win by 64% A WEEK BEFORE THE ELECTION.

        How did they know this? If that link is your “source” for news on this election, I strongly suggest you start looking elsewhere.

        For one thing, ALL THREE REMAINING CANDIDATES, Karoubi, Mousavi and even the hardliner Rezaie have DECLARED THEIR STRONG BELIEF THAT THIS ELECTION WAS FRAUDULENT. Whereas both progressives and the right wing media have reinterpreted this as Mousavi’s fight alone.

        I am NO Mousavi supporter, but as an Iranian, after reading and seeing all the non-Mousavi related EVIDENCE THAT THIS ELECTION WAS EXTREMELY FRAUDULENT (If not stolen, I’m not claiming we know the results) I can say that progressive voices have been as OUT OF TOUCH with “Iran” as those on the right. And that what makes this all the more frustrating and quite sad, is that we Iranians have indeed been sabotaged by both the right and the left … each reinterpreting this story to the advantage of their own agendas without understanding what is REALLY HAPPENING ON THE GROUND.

        1. That is what polls are all about , predicting the result of an election using a representative sample prior to the election.
          All credible polls gave AH a 62-66% lead.

          For example all US papers a week before the presedential election predicted an Obama win , according to your thesis that would mean they were participating in a massive fraud , which is clearly absurd.

          1. The poll was not all that the Amin article talks about. And just because the article justifies an Ahmaidnejad win doesn’t mean it gets its facts right.

            Goudarzi, Ghaziyan and Abdi are the only Iranians INSIDE Iran who specialize in conducting polls and all three of them have cast doubt on Ballen and Dohrety’s findings. (the first two weren’t even associated with any candidate, they are university professors). If you’re mindset is that of polls done in the U.S., than I also suggest you take more time to go through reports about IRAN.

            Kayhan’s article wasn’t based on any POLL. They specifically said it was “their prediction” without giving reference to anything at all. Fatemeh Rahbar (PM), Farsnews, and Ahmadinejad’s deputy declared that he would win 24 MILLION VOTES weeks before the election … just yesterday, Rezai’s website posted the scanned newspaper pages where they had made these statements.

            If you’d like to go on thinking that A.N. won the election, that’s fine. But for an Iranian, there have surfaced too many facts and too many questions and too many ambiguities to go on thinking that way.

  5. Razoniaz – Iran’s support for Hamas and Hizbullah is NOT irrelevant when it comes to Western attitudes to Iran, which is what this article discussed.

    I have heard that beyond north Tehran, Ahmadinejad’s plain speaking in the last weeks – specifically accusing Rafsanjani of corruption – boosted his support. But I wasn’t in Iran, and you may be right.

    I am not saying for a moment that we shouldn’t talk about Iran. I am calling for real debate, and standing against a simplistic reduction, which is what the western media does.

    I do not associate the present protests with counter-revolution. Where do I do that? I do the opposite. I say that the upset Iranians I met all preferred the evolution of the present system to counter-revolution.

    And do you really think I’m an apologist for Ahmadinejad and Khamenei? I think their unintelligent leadership is endangering Iran. I wouldn’t have voted for Ahmadinejad. I’m just asking the west to be less hypocritical, and the media to do its job.

  6. qunfuz

    Thank you for this post.

    I don’t know about you, but it has become increasingly clear to me that this “Green Revolution” or whatever you call it is the Iranian incarnation of groups such as the exiled Cuban elites in Florida and the opposition in Venezuela, and, as of today, the Honduran elites who pulled off the coup against their president. That is to say, they are educated, relatively wealthy, resentful of being pushed around by the unwashed masses, and so determined in their self-righteousness, inflated senses of self-righteousness, that they will stoop even to helping American Fascists get their way to gain back their “freedom” — which better translates as their “privilege”. I say this because I have noted their changing tactics with each new charge against them, the instantaneous response to people hollering about their protest signs being in English: poof, gone. People pointing out that the results had all been published, viable explanation for the precincts with more votes than registered voters, the partial recount: all rebutted with more fantastical allegations. The rush to get Neda’s face on posters all over the world, when it has been shown that she wasn’t at a demonstration, and the doctor who was supposedly helping her is giving out differing stories of the incident, and the Pahlavi pig prince claiming her as his daughter, and not ONE of them griping about the Pahlavi flags being flown in support protests all over the world, and telling people all over the world to set their tweets from Iran…. On and on.

    They do not give a fuck how this harms Iran, paves the superhighway for Halliburton, is an insult to what little claim to democracy they have, no, they want to wear what they want to wear, and out chic each other openly, and not let their economy be ruined by religious nuts who insist on helping the poor.

  7. Iran’s financial system, cultural and religious systems are under attack from certain foreign countries. So why are Iranians in the West fomenting strife and violence? All Iranians, living all around the world, should be uniting to defend their country from outside influences.

    Dress codes and morality police don’t sound too bad to me, and I’m not even muslim.

  8. Well, I mind a dress code, and the morals police, even though I’d rather see a less debauched society. The point is: it looks very much like they all knew Mousavi didn’t have a prayer, but wanted to use this as an opportunity to go postal on the leadership. NO thought to the misery this would bring down on all Iran, and STILL NO thought for it after being shown a bunch of different ways what is in action and what is at stake. Isn’t it Iblis who is this kind of one-eyed? I know the Qur’an or The Counsels of Ḥaḍrat ‘Alī talks about that. So maybe they are losing their religion over personal desires that don’t amount to so much when put up against the death toll this destabilization/PR effort is causing.

    I’m really getting very angry about this.

  9. I’m even angrier at my government, for sending in all the covert ops, for making “a federal case” out of this to get the American people behind them for an attack on Iran, for even contemplating attacking Iran, for even having ANY beef with Iran.

    But that doesn’t take the responsibility for helping these murderating pigs off the shoulders of people who should have known better from the start, but CERTAINLY should know better after all the work that has gone into getting them the facts.

    Okay. I’m going to go soak my head now.

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