Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Tehran, terror and colonial mystique.


Without even a momentary blush, the US government has stated that the main target of its latest, massive arms deal to the caucus of pro-US Middle East despots, is Iran - which, says the Defense Secretary, stands "for everything we stand against." The message, said one senior defense official, is that: "We have been here 60 years and we're going to be here a lot longer." I'd say that statement reflected a certain amount of nervousness as well as the usual imperial arrogance. So far, as Chomsky points out, America's tactics are those of cold war. Although he is sceptical that the administration will take adventurism to a new level with military attacks, there remains the old business of subversion through terror squads, funding sectoral interests and ethnic splitters, working for ever tighter sanctions, strengthening its regional rivals, protecting and aiding the MEK in Iraq, and so on. The US administration would therefore hope, at some length, to repeat the success against Mossadegh. However, what might not be noticed as widely as it should is that these weapons deals are intended for suppression. Brian Whitaker's sharp column in The Guardian draws this out very clearly: the intention is that Saudi Arabia will crack down on a restive Shia minority which, it is worried, may well align with Iran. Naturally, the war on the Shia crescent has already been underway, with far-right Sunni groups being supported in Lebanon. Additionally Mubarak, America's second largest recipient of aid, will have a bigger arsenal with which to attack and terrorise the insurgent labour movement, and defend his regime against the brewing revolt (Hossam el-Hamalawy has regular updates about that).

Iran is a traumatic issue for America's ruling class. There are those, to be sure, who would much prefer engagement and neoliberal reform to outright confrontation, but they have not had the upper hand for a while. The outrage has barely stopped for thirty years: they lost Iran. Iran overthrow tutelage. How dare they? Although Iran was useful in the counterrevolutionary struggle in Latin America, it was still isolated, embargoed, and made proxy war on through the Iraqi Ba'ath regime. The Americans had openly basked in their triumph when, along with British intelligence, they kicked out the liberal moderniser, Mossadegh. As the New York Times explained in an editorial on 6th August 1954: "Underdeveloped countries with rich resources now have an object lesson in the heavy cost that must be paid by one of their number which goes berserk with fanatical nationalism. It is perhaps too much to hope that Iran's experience will prevent the rise of other Mossadeghs in other countries, but that experience may at least strengthen the hands of more reasonable and more far-seeing leaders." Thus, for decades, 'fanatical nationalists' were murdered and tortured by a regime that by the 1970s had become, according to Amnesty International, the worst torturer in the world. Alas, as Kermit Roosevelt explains in 'Countercoup' - about his role in subverting Iranian democracy - the miraculous achievements of the Shah raised expectations too high, and thus encouraged the Iranians to once more get ideas into their heads about self-government. In 'Covering Islam', Edward Said described the immeasurable outpouring of grief and outrage in America's media when the Shah was overthrown: no one knows what the hell is going in Islam, they complained, let's get Bernard Lewis. Let's get Elie Kedourie. Someone tell us what the hell is going on! Time, said others, to assert our power - let's do something to help Iran's regional enemies who now feel threatened. The volume of coverage was strictly in inverse proportion to the amount of information conveyed about the remarkable uprising with its enormous internal struggles for power and principle. It was covered as if it was a national disaster that should surely pass soon: they counted it in days - day 18 of the crisis, day 28, day 40... and we are now in year 28. It was more than proprietary resentment: it was panic. The rising arc of anticolonial revolts was one thing: communism, whether it was communist or not, was at least explicable, if not digestible. But then Islam comes along and confounds all.

Old habits die hard. Islam still confounds the Orientalists, and they still pull their hair out over the unique eschatology of the Republic and the President's correspondence with the Hidden Imam. What does he wants those nuclear power stations for? (They might also ask for what secret end the Iranian regime is harnessing windpower?) Isn't he a mad man? As Joseph Massad points out in 'Desiring Arabs', this Orientalism has been smuggled into human rights and gay liberation discourse by those who ought to know better: the certainty that there is something unique about Islam that proscribes and punishes homosexuality went alongside propagandistic claims by the ILGA and others about the "mass execution" of homosexuals in Iran. There is today a bitter argument among human rights activists, Iranian diasporists, gay rights activists and so on about the extent of repression of gays in Iran. (See this angry debate, for example). As Rostam Pourzal points out, a number of gay rights organisations have pointedly shunned the claims being made in some quarters about an anti-gay "pogrom" in Iran. The Iranian government is repressive of all sexual activity outside of heterosexual marriage, but I suspect that the claims now being made by a few individuals - often transmitted through Peter Tatchell who is totally unreliable these days - reflect the state of Western liberalism, and not the state of Iran. They reflect the obsession of liberals with Islam and questions of identity, and they also provide, whether they mean to or not, one plank in a propaganda campaign against a country that Washington is currently targeting.

Indeed, as the excellent critic Hamid Dabashi points out, the 'war on terror' has its own specialised literature - the memoir, typically, the anecdotal and the biographical - which provides a comforting selective recall for American and European audiences. The tradition of native informers is resuscitated as world literature. The genuine predicaments of, for example, women in conservative societies are appropriated and rearticulated as questions about how white men can save brown women from brown men. The defiance of Iranians, whether in violation of sumptuary laws, or through reading habits, or even the activities of the remarkably rebellious labour movement, is reinterpreted as a yearning for the the West, the dichotomous opposite to Islam. Bring back the Shah, and we shall settle our affairs in a Christian manner. (Dabashi, incidentally, is as far from a supporter of the Islamic Republic as is possible. His own recent book, 'Iran: A People Interrupted', a lavish history of Iran stretching over 200 years, argues that the Republic has reproduced a version of the anti-cosmopolitan colonial modernity that Iranians have been resisting.)

The resistance of Iranian workers and minorities (ethnic, national and sexual) to the encroachments and abuses of their own ruling elite is constantly being usurped for the purposes of empire. The Solidarity Centre, which is overwhelmingly funded by the US federal government, is trying to turn Iran's union leadership into cold war allies. The press call the leader of Iran's bus drivers union 'Lech Walesa'. Such is the realistic worry among Iranian oppositionists that their movements will be caught in a pincer of 'support' from Washington and ensuing crackdowns from Tehran, that they mostly work determinedly to separate themselves from America's passionate embrace. As Akbar Ganji writes, the Iranian government is imperilled from within, because of its inability to solve the problems of development, and because of its inability to make the necessary concessions to alleviate class and ethnic polarisation. As such the regime makes matters easier for Iran's geopolitical rivals. Yet, Ganji also points out, Iranians rightly understand that American foreign policy is co-responsible for its stalled political and economic development, and any attempt to coopt the opposition will mostly fail on those grounds at least. Besides, what Iranian could look at what America brought to Iraqi workers and dream of one day being draped in the stars n stripes?

Still, as America attempts to freeze its particular colonial modernity in the Middle East and roll back Iranian insubordination through terror and crackdowns, it will never stop having the moxy to claim democracy as its own peculiar promise to the Middle East. In the same breath that Robert Gates or Condoleeza Rice threaten other states and encourage intensified repression, they will remember to add something about What America Stands For. Empirical rebuttal is futile: it is a messianic claim, and like all messiahs it will never come, except as fraud. The prophesy itself is what matters. For all the talk of End Times, the favoured eschatology of the Unites States elite is Fukuyama's perpetually arriving End of History, in which the empire of capital will, eventually, conquer all foes, all challenges and all of its internal weaknesses.