Everyone's Confused About What's Happening in Iran
Close scrutiny of reports in the American media on Iran’s June 12 election reveals a wide range of contradictory and unsubstantiated claims. Some of it is speculation for lack of information, to be sure, but some is also wishful thinking to fit ideological assumptions.
It is not just a matter of left versus right. Contradictory claims have been expressed by people within the same ideological camp. At the end, behind the outrage or the rhetorical flourish, they are not any closer to a consistent account of the Iranian events.
There are many questions that have elicited claims and counter-claims. Who won the June 12 election, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Mir-Hossein Moussavi, is only one such question. Among others are the following: how skewed are the percentages: the 85 percent for voter turnout, the officially announced 63 percent for Ahmadinejad, and the 34 percent for Moussavi? Beyond counting percentages, which of the two major candidates has majority support among the rural poor, or the urban middle class, or the students and the young unemployed? In what way is Moussavi a “reformist”, a “socialist” or a “left Islamist”, as he has been varyingly called -- or is he something else entirely? How is it that Moussavi’s chief backer in the political establishment, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, transmuted from the “most corrupt” mullah (according to frequent past reports in the west) to a “reformist” politician? These are a few among many questions that have produced conflicting answers. Reasonable readers should be excused for being confused.
But so what? From a left perspective in the US, these questions are in fact of little importance, interesting as they may be under different circumstances. They are unrelated to the hard task of building an effective mass movement that can restrain or block the government’s rightwing drift domestically and its bullying in the Middle East and elsewhere. If anything, they have deflected attention from a more important and immediate task facing the anti-war movement: how to counter the very real possibility of an attack on Iran.
For months now, there have been loud claims that Iran’s nuclear program is an “existential threat” to Israel and the rest of the world. This is, of course, utter bunk and very dangerous bombast. Assuming Iran had such a capability, could a nuclear attack against Israel be calibrated so that it will destroy the Israelis but not the Palestinians in their midst (and Iran’s ally, Hamas), and not the Lebanese (and Iran’s ally, Hezbollah) a few kilometers to the north, and not the Jordanians a few kilometers to the east? Could Iran’s nuclear warheads, if they existed and were launched, destroy Israel’s seat of government without incinerating Jerusalem and covering both Arabs and Israelis with radioactive fallout?
For all the declarations about the need to “engage Iran diplomatically” by Obama and his advisors, they are also planning for a possible bombing campaign; no doubt only a fraction of these plans has been revealed to the general public.
If they carry out the threat of destroying Iran’s nuclear installations - spread over a country larger in size than the UK, France and Germany combined, with a population of 70 million - it will provoke retaliation and bring untold devastation to an already deeply wounded region. This is a far more ominous issue than all the impassioned talks about Iran’s election results.
Below is a sample of American reactions to Iran’s June 12 election and its aftermath. Needless to say, our sample below is illustrative, not exhaustive, moving from right to left across the political spectrum.
From the far right, neo-conservative opinions have been the most homogeneous and therefore the least unexpected. They come from government officials, academics and media commentators -- predictably hawkish, elitist and racist -- with different degrees of chilling recommendations.
Elliott Abrams, deputy national security adviser in the Bush administration, decided before even June 12 that Iran’s presidential election is a “travesty”, because “voting in Iran is a contrivance for settling certain policy disputes and personal rivalries within the ruling elite”. Abrams predicts there will be no significant change in Iran’s conduct after June 12, regardless of who is president. He therefore warns western leaders against “the delusion that a new president would mean new opportunities to negotiate away Iran’s nuclear program”.
After June 12, as violent clashes erupted between the Ahmadinejad and Moussavi camps, neo-cons have consistently reproached the Obama administration for its cautious approach. The latter may be the result of necessity rather than benevolence, with Iraq still burning to the west and Afghanistan heating up to the east. But no matter. Paul Wolfowitz, a former Deputy Secretary of Defense, recommends: “Now is not the time for the president to dig in to a neutral posture. It is time to change course.”
John Bolton, a former US ambassador to the UN, goes further, as if he is competing with fellow neo-cons for the most outlandish -- and dangerous -- stance. He recommends that now is the time to bomb Iran and take out its nuclear program. His twisted logic makes him believe that the current “uprising in Iran makes it more likely that an effective public diplomacy campaign could be waged in the country to explain to Iranians that such an attack is directed against the regime, not against the Iranian people … Military action against Iran’s nuclear program and the ultimate goal of regime change can be worked together consistently.”
Anyone with an ounce of sanity would normally ignore such odious pronouncements. But they are considered within the limits of ‘respectable’ opinion, from influential individuals in Washington, and therefore merit attention.
The newspaper of record
The New York Times is the newspaper of record in the US and generally speaks for the American ruling elites. With minor shades of differences, its editorial page and all of its regular columnists are firm believers in American exceptionalism, overtly or not. They work in near unison on exalting Obama’s personal qualities and promoting the fiction that he represents a radical departure from policies pursued by earlier presidents.
Within these narrow limits, more stringent still when it comes to the Middle East, Roger Cohen is one of the saner voices among the NYT columnists. Before the June 12 election, Cohen warned repeatedly about the lunacy of a military strike against Iran’s nuclear centers, to his credit, without playing advocate for either Ahmadinejad or Moussavi. Since June 12, he has thrown his lot with the Moussavi camp, seeing in Ahmadinejad a crude demagogue who has “made many enemies along his mystical-militaristic way”.
Apart from the differences in style between the Ahmadinejad and Moussavi camps, Cohen comes up with the theory - quite imaginative, one may say - that the contest is really about winning the “big prize” of re-establishing relations with America, because America is “dear to most Iranians”. Since both sides agree on what the “big prize” is, according to Cohen, one is left wondering about what fundamentally differentiates them. Do the two sides have different terms for a rapprochement with America? Cohen does not say.
Cohen takes it for granted that defrauding occurred on a large scale and the June 12 election was a “ballot-box putsch”. Perhaps. But he also makes the very doubtful claim that Obama’s appeal as a person, as a “black man of part Muslim heritage”, and his “outreach” to the Muslim world were crucial in making rapprochement with America the “big prize” for both sides.
Liberal and left-liberal
The New Yorker weekly magazine is a mouthpiece of the American liberal intelligentsia. An article by Laura Secor in its June 29 issue has no hesitation in painting Moussavi as the leader of “the forces of secular democracy” arrayed against Ahmadinejad’s “autocratic theocracy” in an epic “confrontation between irreconcilables”.
Secor writes that Moussavi and his allies were part of the Islamic left faction in the 1980s and very much part of the establishment of the Islamic Republic. How does she explain their metamorphosis into “the forces of secular democracy”? No explanation. She flatly asserts that, in the last 20 years, “the Islamic left faction ... made one of the most dramatic turnabouts in Iran’s political history. It abandoned its hard-line commitments in favor of an agenda of liberalization, freedom of expression, the relaxation of Islamic social codes and friendlier dealings with the world.” What is more, not only does Secor make the movement led by Moussavi a beacon of secular democracy, but, “whatever its origins, [it] has coalesced with extraordinary speed into a disciplined, tactically sophisticated and strikingly moderate movement”. In sum, a disciplined revolutionary movement, upholding cherished liberal democratic ideals. Enough to justify Secor’s air-headed enthusiasm and unmitigated support.
Robert Naiman, editor of the left-liberal online newsletter, Just Foreign Policy, hesitates to throw his support behind Moussavi and wants more evidence from the Iranians before deciding.
In an article dated June 29, Naiman writes that he has “been reaching out to Iranians who have or can get specific information about what happened on June 12-13.” He says that “many Iranians who didn’t vote for Ahmadinejad [are] deeply sceptical of opposition claims that the election on June 12 was ‘stolen,’ and [have] demanded that the opposition provide specific evidence of its claims”. Naiman sympathizes with such Iranians and takes their skepticism as demanding clarification. For whose sake does Naiman seek such clarification, the Iranians or concerned outsiders? He does not say, and perhaps he wants it for both. He concludes his article with a presumptuous and misplaced appeal: “If the opposition or its foreign supporters have evidence that the election was ‘stolen’, let them present it for all to see. Which ballot box do you dispute?” As if the championing of one Iranian side against the other is a prerequisite for progressive Iran-related action in America.
In the July 13 issue of the left-liberal weekly The Nation, Babak Sarfaraz writes paeans to “Iran’s new revolutionaries”. He describes the Green Wave, the popular movement supporting Moussavi, as a “multi-generational, multi-ethnic and multi-class phenomenon”. Sarfaraz extols the Green Wave leaders as “sophisticated and canny” young revolutionaries. He gives the impression that the vast majority of Iranians are against Ahmadinejad, who is only kept in power by the Revolutionary Guards and the Bassij militia. Sarfaraz also details a plan purportedly drawn by Rafsanjani, as head of the Assembly of Experts, to replace the supreme leader’s one-person rule (now invested in ayatollah Ali Khamenei) by a leadership council of three or more high-ranking clerics. This would be a turnover of one of the Islamic Republic’s fundamental tenets, and goes beyond any speculation by others in available media reports. Is this inside information or is it wishful thinking?
Two pages later in the same issue of The Nation, Alexander Cockburn completely deflates Moussavi, describing him as “one of the foulest of that foul gang in the Council of the Cultural Revolution, charged with the Islamisation of Iranian society”. As Iran’s prime minister from 1981 to 1989, Moussavi, Cockburn reminds his readers, “sent murdering squads of thugs into every university, purging secularism and religious minorities”. In fact, “Compared with the vicious [Moussavi-Rafsanjani] duo, Ahmadinejad is relatively wholesome.” What is The Nation reader to believe, Sarfaraz’s paeans or Cockburn’s prompt dispatching of Moussavi?
Veteran journalist Reese Erlich recently posted an article entitled ‘Iran and leftist confusion’ on the anarchist ZNet website. The article is valuable for the range of opinions it surveys from left activists in the US. But Erlich’s purpose is not to cover all opinions emanating from the left. He limits his survey to individuals whom he takes to task because they oppose the opposition led by Moussavi or withhold support from it.
In his determination to rebut what he calls “leftwing Doubting Thomas arguments” point by point, Erlich also ignores reasonable criticisms of Moussavi, most notably by progressive Iranians or Iranian expatriates, some of whom are also against Ahmadinejad - just like Erlich himself. One such criticism is by Ervand Abrahamian, now a professor of history at the City University of New York, who gives a more nuanced analysis of the events surrounding the June 12 election. Abrahamian points out that Moussavi “cannot be called leftist or socialist, as several articles have described him, but rather ‘statist’”.
Addressing left activists in the US who are opposed to the Moussavi movement, Erlich concludes his article with the rhetorical, “Whose side are you on?”
But why the compulsion to take sides - with Moussavi or against him - here in the United States? There is already a full agenda for progressive action in relation to Iran. Left solidarity with the right to protest in Iran (and everywhere else) does not mean siding with either Moussavi or Ahmadinejad. The task of organizing against the possibility of bombing Iran is enormous enough and is perhaps the best support progressives in the west can lend to the people of Iran.