The Iran Situation


Foaad Khosmood: What is your view as to the current thinking in the US Administration toward Iran? The rhetoric of Condi Rice (No war plans right now) is almost exactly what the administration proclaimed at this stage of the game with Iraq. Could an ideologically-driven decision for an invasion have been made already?

Ahmad Sadri: The steadily escalating charges of possession of Weapons of Mass Destruction is indeed reminiscent of the prelude to the Iraqi invasion. Is this all a bluff? Are they playing the good cop to the bad cop of the Europeans? If we go with the bluffing theory then they have not blinked yet and the Iranians seem to take the treats seriously.

Wishful thinkers proposed this theory before the Iraqi invasion as well: they praised Bush for an admirably poker-faced bluff that forced Iraq to submit to international inspections. But the masterful acting turned out to be so effective because it was not acting at all. Now, lets consider the alternative scenario: what if they are not bluffing? This means that they are fully intent to follow through with some kind of military action including selective bombing and attempts at partial or full occupation. A bombing will almost certainly not achieve the goal of hitting all the nuclear sites and at any rate it is sure to spur Iran on a more secretive and effective nuclear weapons program. An occupation would not be feasible given the size and the population of the country and the state of readiness of its armed forces.

Any operation by ground forces would be also unthinkable given the enormous cost and the state of near exhaustion of the American armed forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. However, these factors would exclude American military action against Iran only if we assume the rationality of the small counter elite that runs the foreign policy of the United States. But what if the thirty or so neo cons who occupy all the key posts in the US government have succeeded in liberating themselves from the concerns of this puny little world that the rest of us inhabit?

What if they actually believe that Iraq is a “success story” and wish to make more history like that? Now you see why answering your question is not so easy: we are not sure if the American policy makers operate in the universe of normal, responsible politics of the modern world. Ideological politicians don’t see themselves bound by the immediate results of their policies. They expect to be evaluated only on the merits of their long term objectives, irrespective of their costs and consequences. In the short term the strategy is: damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.

FKh: If a regime change policy is to be acted on, what form could it take other than an outright Iraq-style invasion?

AS: One of my friends calls the Bush-style “regime change” occubration: occupation and liberation. The claim is that the Americans would first occupy and then liberate the troublesome countries of Middle East one by one. Despite the success of the recent elections in Iraq (a limited victory achieved at an enormous price) we perceive the difficulties yet to be overcome in that land. Those difficulties will be multiplied in Iran.

Will the government be a centralized or a federal one? What political shape would it take? The gamut runs from a limited monarchy to a liberal democracy. What role will ethnic aspirations play in putting back together the humpty dumpty? Wouldn’t, for instance an Iranian Kurdistan wish to unite with its Iraqi counterpart and what would the creation of such an entity mean in the balance of Turkish, Persian and Arab geopolitics in the region?

The unintended consequences of questions such as these are not known to anyone and an external power that would dream of redrawing the map of the Middle East is well advised to ponder these questions.

FKh: What kind of support is there for toppling of the Iranian regime amongst Iranians? Would an invasion be welcome by the Iranians?

AS: Tom Friedman wrote in a recent column that Iran is a so-called “Red State.” He had a point. I have found that criticizing the Bush Administration in Tehran even in a lecture at the headquarters of the main opposition party (Mosharekat) gets a chilly reception. Such a talk would not be received in this manner anywhere else in the world, including most of the lecture hall I have visited in the United States. The enemy-of-my-enemy syndrome is fully in operation in Iran.

People tend to automatically sympathize with anyone reviled in the state controlled media. The thinking is that anything that keeps the ruling right wing in this new phase of its hegemonic rule off balance can’t be that bad. But there is a caveat for President Bush and his advisors here: public opinion polls show that this moral sympathy is skin deep. In the words of Gary Sick in his February16th congressional briefing: “The Iranian people today are remarkably pro-American, partly as a negative reaction to their distaste for their own government and its anti-American propaganda. In my view, that would end with the first bomb.”

Iranians may be heard in taxi cabs saying things like: “oh, I wish they would bomb us if it helps us get rid of these mullahs.” But that is more like saying: I am sick and tired of this life which is more of an expression than a declaration of intent to commit suicide. In short, despite the apparent sympathies with an idea of a violent toppling of the regime in Iran there will be precious few flowers for invading liberators. National pride and the prejudice against the meddling foreigners are very much alive in Iran. Instant flocking to whoever happens to be in control of the central government (which also happened during the Iraqi invasion) is the most likely outcome of military intervention in Iran.

Fkh: Iran has been called the “most active state sponsor of international terrorism.” This charge was recently repeated in the President’s 2005 State of the Union Address. What is the basis of this claim by the Administration?

AS: What we have here is the latest volley in the American propaganda offensive. Its cynical authors rely on the cumulative effect of baseless accusations that in time have attained a patina of self-evidence. In the eyes of the respectable international experts however — a company that excludes the ideological American neo cons and some Israelis — it is preposterous to call Iran the most active state sponsor of international terrorism.

There have been a lot of accusations but lets ask: what terrorist activity has been pinned on Iran? There were no Iranians involved in the events of 9/11 and no Iranians have been charged in other incidents that were initially attributed to Iran: the Khobar towers in Saudi Arabia, the downing of Pan Am and TWA airliners and the bombing of the Jewish Cultural Center in Buenos Aires. Most recently the 9/11 Commission Report revealed that some Al-Qaidah members had crossed Iran without having their passports stamped. In absence of other evidence this only means that they must have crossed Iran illegally. In this case Iran is less culpable than those countries (including US) that let the terrorists through and stamped their passports.

Of course, until 1997 Iran did engage in the Argentine-style “disappearing” and murder of internal dissidents as well as extra-territorial assassination of undesirable expatriates. The last prominent example of this was the targeted killings of some Kurdish nationalists in a restaurant (named Mykanos) in Germany. But there have been no further assassinations of this kind since 1997 partly due to the scandal that ensued the Mykanos assassinations. Inside Iran the serial murders of the dissidents in 1990s may have claimed more than 80 victims. But no such murders have been committed in Iran since President Khatami insisted on prosecuting those responsible for the last four of these “serial murders.”

I can’t say I am happy with the outcome of those trials but the fact is that liquidation of the dissidents has stopped in the past eight years. And, there has never been any international terrorist activity involving Iran in the last two decades.

FKh: Hezbollah is frequently mentioned in the US media as a terrorist organization, backed by Iran, akin to Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Yet the group enjoys political legitimacy in Lebanon where it engages in charity work and takes part in parliamentary elections. How can we classify Hezbollah? What is the objective of Hezbollah military wing in southern Lebanon?

AS: There is a fair amount of verbal tribute to a mythologized Palestinian struggle against Israel in Iranian state controlled media. It is far less clear if the support for the actually existing Palestinians go beyond slogans. The relationship with Shiite Hezbollah is much warmer but again, as you mentioned, this organization has devolved into a legitimate political party in Lebanon, and most of its activities since the withdrawal of Israel has been in the area of social welfare.

In short, the Iranian support for Hezbollah, would hardly make Iran into a terrorist state. One must also note that even at the height of its struggle against the Israeli occupation Hezbollah never targeted civilians.

FKh: Are the Iranian hard-line clerics competing with their Arab counter parts for support of the Palestinian population?

AS: Yes, but not very successfully. We have to start with the fact that the cultural connection between Persian Shiites and the Sunnis of the Levant and Palestine has always been tenuous. This alienation has been exacerbated by two decades of Saudi and Iraqi anti-Shiite propaganda. On the Iranian side the popular support for Palestine has been declining. Iranians rightly sense that the state cynically uses the issue of Palestine for domestic purposes. Instead of gaining sympathy among Palestinians the Iranian clerics have squandered the enormous popular support that existed for the Palestinian cause in pre-Revolutionary Iran.

FKh: In a 2003 Daily Star article you wrote: “Never before have the combination of regional atomic arsenals and ambitions, along with a global superpower aggressive nuclear posture, so endangered the very existence of the Middle East.” That was before the latest round (2005) of antagonistic rhetoric between Iran and USA. How likely is nuclear detonation now? What circumstances do you envision could bring about further nuclear proliferation?

AS: The situation remains alarming. There is a glaring contradiction in the American stance toward Iran: their coercive anti-nuclear diplomacy and relentless bullying of Iran is partly based on their atomic menace. They are in the process of refurbishing their atomic arsenal to produce smaller and tactical nuclear weapons as well as a new generation of more robust warheads. Having extracted every drop of political use of an atomic arsenal in projecting their foreign policy the Americans are not in a position to exhort others against the nuclear option. Nuclear disarmament requires an atmosphere of détente not one of nuclear arm twisting.

The principle also applies to other Nuclear Club members in the region. They can’t saunter about packing nuclear weapons while issuing unctuous warnings against the dangers of the nuclear option for non-members. I am convinced that nuclear weapons are dangerous for the Middle East and that is why I urge an across the board nuclear de-escalation rather than the regular NPT regime.

If history proves one thing, it is that when there is a nuclear will there will be a nuclear way. Countries like Iran can use the legal path of developing a nuclear energy program. At a later date, when their nuclear expertise reaches the threshold of other advanced industrial countries (like Germany and Japan) they can quickly weaponize. Such an event is sure to intensify the race for nuclear weapons in the entire region.

By the way, I am sure that once Iranians have stocked their own nuclear arsenal they too will engage in the NPT charade. They too will come out shedding crocodile tears and warning others not to do as they have done but as they say. The bottom line is that instead of nuclear realpolitik we need a nuclear green sentiment among the superpowers, the regional states and in the grassroots if we want to reverse the race to the bottom of a nuclear “high noon” in the Middle East.

FKh: Do you believe Iran is seeking a nuclear weapon? Why?

AS: Iran is the world’s most recent victim of weapons of mass destruction. Masses of Iranian soldiers were exposed to Iraq’s chemical weapons. At the time the Americans not only refused to hold Iraq responsible for this atrocity; they actually helped Iraqis to cover up their crime. Remember that after the gassing of the Kurds in Halabcheh, Americans claimed that Iranians might have perpetrated the crime, thus muddying the water and allowing Saddam’s regime to escape international condemnation.

The point is that the American coercive diplomacy has further intensified the nationalist flavor of the nuclear debate in Iran. This means that even a “regime change” will not quench the nationalist thirst for nukes. The situation is so bad that the best way of making political hay in Iran is demanding a withdrawal from NPT and IAEA.

So, the answer to your question is: yes. There is a nuclear will in Iran not only as the right wing Mullahs’ buffer against intervention but also as an issue of national security. The way to defuse this problem is not nuclear intimidation but negotiation among nuclear and non-nuclear powers in the region.

FKh: The 8-year Iran-Iraq war resulted in almost a million deaths yet it is hardly ever mentioned by the US media and the administration these days. What do you believe was the impact of the Iran-Iraq war on the region?

AS: I just spoke of one of the consequences of that war which is the anxiety of exposure to weapons of mass destruction. But the Iran-Iraq war is also responsible for stoking various fires that still smolder all over Iran’s political scene. For instance the disappointing end of the Iran-Iraq war was in my view the prime mover of the reform movement in Iran. Cynical exploitation of religion and the extremist slogans (such as fighting a technological war by relaying on mass martyrdom etc.) cost Iran hundreds of thousands of casualties.

When the absolutist do-or-die promises fizzled in accepting an inconclusive peace there was a great deal of disenchantment in the ranks, which in time percolated up into the political chambers of Iran generating what came to be known as the reform movement. In terms of future relations between the two nations I believe both learned a good lesson in futility of military solutions for their border problems.

FKh: You have done some research on the maverick figure of Abdulkarim Soroush and his philosophy of a democratic modernist Islam. Do you believe that people like Soroush are having an impact on the Iranian clergy?

AS: I would not call Soroush a maverick figure. Rather he is the forerunner of an intellectual reform movement, which defines the mainstream of public thinking in Iran. The movement has found many worthy practitioners, fellow travelers and followers. But what is more important than the impact of Soroush on Iran is the way he represents the Iranian experience. There is no dearth of brilliant Muslim reformers in the Islamic world from Morocco to Indonesia. But it is only in Iran that the intellectual reform articulates the massive disenchantment of the population with the ideal of the government of God.

It is not an accident that Iran is the only Muslim country with no grassroots fundamentalist movement. Of course, the insights of Abdlokarim Soroush are revolutionary not only for Iran but also for the Islamic world. His groundbreaking work on separating religion and its human interpretation was vastly influential in 1990s.

His more recent work on the “essential and accidental” aspects of religion represents another paradigm shifts in the Islamic intellectual horizon. What is in a holy book, he maintains, is to a large extent determined by the accidents of a prophet’s life. Many verses in the Quran are the direct result of such accidents (e.g., the verses relating adultery.)

Soroush also observes that if the prophet’s life had been different, longer or shorter the Quran could have been of a different length and content. The lesson is to seek the spirit of the religion rather than its literal content. Muslims must listen to the prophetic voice of the Quran rather than confine themselves in legalistic form derived from it.

This insight would also challenge the literalism of all fundamentalists regardless of their religious tradition. For instance there is no example of Jesus Christ using force to stop an aggressor against a defenseless victim. After all, he never happened to stumble on a scene of a Roman soldier attempting to rape a Jewish woman. Hence, it is essential that theologians extrapolate beyond the text rather than imprisoning themselves in it.

FKh: Whatever the Islamic Republic is right now, is there reason to believe it is headed in the direction of either increased repression or increased freedom and pluralism? What do you think of the performance of President Khatami in the struggle of Iranians for these goals?

AS: Well, the disheartening defeat of the political reform movement (as a result of the intransigence of the right wing and inept leadership of President Khatami) must not lead us to despair. The intellectual reform in Iran is alive and well indeed. The empowered right wing has gained its present supremacy in the parliament by cheating as well as by default. The illegal vetting of the candidates by the rightwing Guardian Council and the indifference of the Iranian electorate after the failure of the reform has produced a rightwing parliament.

That combination may yet bring us a rightwing president in the coming months as well. But the paradigm shift of the intellectual reform in Iran is an accomplished and irreversible fact. On that basis alone, one can predict a bright future for freedom, democracy and pluralism in Iran. Sadly that future has got to be of the distant rather than the immediate kind.

Ahmad Sadri, currently professor and chair of the Sociology and Anthropology Department at Lake Forest College was born in Tehran and obtained his BA and MA degrees from the University of Tehran and his PhD from the New School for Social Research in New York City. He is the author of “Max Weber’s Sociology of Intellectuals” (Oxford University Press, 1992, 1994) and “Reviving the Concept of Civilizations,” published by Hermes Press in 2001 in Persian. He has translated from Arabic “Saddam City” (London, Saqi, 2004) and co-translated from Persian, “Reason, Freedom and Democracy in Islam” (Oxford University Press, 2002). He is an active participant in the intellectual reform movement in Iran and was a columnist for the English Language “Daily Star” of Lebanon during 2004. Sadri has written extensively in the areas of his expertise, sociologies of intellectuals and religion.

Foaad Khosmood is the Editor of ZNet’s Iran Watch.

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