by Geov Parrish
May 24, 2003
Late in April, the United States quietly agreed to help its enemy.
The US, as the world knows, is on an unquenchable mission to end terror. The immediate focus of that noble, albeit impossible, goal is to stamp out dozens of groups that the US State Department has officially named as terrorist organizations. In the wake of 9/11, a host of new laws and regulations make material or financial assistance, association, or even advocacy concerning such groups basis for civil charges, criminal charges, asset seizure, and/or deportation, often with no due process, no appeal, no glimpse, even, at evidence that allegedly supports the government's claims.
And last month, the Bush Administration signed a ceasefire agreement with one of those banned groups. The Mojahedin Khalq Organization (MKO) in eastern Iraq, formerly designated a "terrorist group," now operates freely out of a country controlled by the United States, without changing its political agenda or tactics a bit. The Bush Administration, in short, has become a sponsor of terrorism even by its own definition.
The MKO episode would merely be a particularly stark illustration of the double standard that has permeated US foreign policy for a half-century: that the difference between terrorism and freedom fighting depends largely on whose bagfuls of cash are buying the weapons. It is also a symptom of a much more dire foreign policy failure of the Bush Administration. The MKO, widely believed to be originally created and sponsored by Saddam Hussein's regime before handing itself over to its new Beltway patron, has for years been crossing the border from Iraq into Western Iran to attack civilian and military targets there. Under the ceasefire, the MKO is being allowed to keep its Iraq bases and weaponry and to continue its cross-border attacks. The MKO has, in short, shifted from being a pawn in Saddam Hussein's anti-Iranian vendetta to being a pawn in the Bush Administration's anti-Iranian vendetta. Under George Bush's own doctrine, Iran should have every right to invade US-occupied Iraq on the grounds that it is harboring terrorists.
The Bush version of an anti-Iranian vendetta, not surprisingly, has a number of fronts. Today, for example, a carefully planted "officials said" story in the New York Times--one of two newspapers of record for White House press releases with neutral-sounding bylines pasted over the original author's name--details White House efforts to seek "broad international support for an official finding that Tehran has violated its commitment not to produce nuclear weapons."
Iranian interest in obtaining a nuclear capacity--to counter both Saddam's ambitions and Israel's enormous (and illegal) existing stockpile--has been a quietly accepted reality in international circles for years. While the Saddam threat is gone, the American threat is suddenly far more urgent than Saddam was since 1990. Moreover, it was the Bush Administration itself which, by abandoning ABM restrictions (among numerous other moves), fired a starting gun for a new race to nuclear proliferation. But the Bush Administration's decision to press the Iran issue now is more than an opportunistic linkage with North Korea's newly declared nuclear production, a linkage used to justify a troika (the infamous "Axis of Evil") that has never made sense to anybody in any world capital other than Washington DC.
Other fronts have opened up as well: the bellicose public pronouncements by high-ranking officials touting American Empire, Middle Eastern dominos, and the like; the establishment of major new US military bases on Iran's western (Iraq) and eastern (Afghanistan) borders; and what, in addition to MKO support, is assumed to be a major covert effort to destabilize Tehran. Taken together, a US war to effect "regime change" in Iran seems to be under careful construction, if not in its opening stages.
The problem is, Iran's current "regime" offers the region's best true hope for democracy.
The images most Americans have of Iran since what is referred to universally in the Islamic world as the Iranian Revolution are a quarter-century old. They are of Ayatollah Khomeini and a coterie of severe-looking bearded clerics, ruthlessly imposing a theocracy based on religious law, tolerating no dissent, and severing hands and heads in public spectacles of punishment. They are the images of mobs shouting "Death to America," and of yellow ribbons and the hostage crisis that crippled Jimmy Carter's presidency. They are outdated.
To be sure, Iran is still a theocracy, still uses the Koran as the basis of its legal system, and still thinks poorly of America. It is also the only Muslim country in the region that sustains competing political parties and genuinely contested elections. It has, in recent years, been a political petri dish, as so-called "moderates" slowly and unevenly tempered the harshness of the original Revolution, and began to introduce more cultural freedoms, greater freedom of expression, experiments in economic development, and greater autonomy in local governments. A new generation of Iranian students agitates not for greater repression, but for greater freedom.
The notion that the yearnings of Arab and Islamic peoples for greater self- governance must necessarily come in the form of Western-style democracy is as arrogant as the old colonialist notion that primitive brown peoples were incapable of self-governance at all, or that--if they were even genetically capable--they could only sustain small spoonfuls after careful training. Instead, left to their own devices, the chances that the citizens of Iran will be able to freely decide leaders and public policies are far greater than the chances of Iraqis under the historically, culturally, and spiritually illiterate model the Bush Administration proposes to import. An unmolested Iran is also far likelier to be able to serve as a model for other Islamic states currently ruled by despots.
But United States leaders -- especially the neocons that now seem to be the dominant force in determining US foreign policy -- seem incapable of not molesting another country's experiments in freedom. What Iranians are attempting to create is democracy in an Islamic context. It is a remarkable experiment that would be in the United States' direct self-interest to encourage. Instead, the White House seems eager, almost desperate, to pick a fight with Tehran. In doing so, it strengthens the already considerable power of Tehran's hard-liners--clerics who take a dim view of the country's increasing liberalism.
For all the brutality of the Revolution, far more people died, both on the streets and in the dungeons, under the country's previous ruler, the CIA- installed Shah of Iran, who ruled the country for a quarter-century (1954-78) and is remembered not only for his government's staggering brutality, but also its corruption. The austerity of Tehran's clerics is admired and appreciated by Iranians who remember the kleptocracy of the "Peacock Throne" all too well.
American assurances of pure intentions and beckoning freedom ring hollow with the memory of the Shah (not to mention the current crop of US-supported sheiks in neighboring countries). As such, a direct threat to Iranian security by the United States is the best possible way to strengthen the political hand of the clerics who toppled America's brutal dictator last time around. Short of a direct invasion--and America now has hundreds of thousands of troops in the region and a public policy of unprovoked invasion--it's hard to imagine a more directly threatening stance to Iran than new bases on two sides, a Persian Gulf full of aircraft carriers on a third side, overt assistance to cross-border terror raids, covert support for who knows what, and an effort to affect international isolation that follows virtually the same script that the same President just used to invade, conquer, and occupy the country next door.
This sends a message--not just to Iranians trying to construct a model of greater freedom, but to every other country in the Islamic world.
What on earth is Washington doing?
Geov Parrish is a Seattle-based columnist and reporter for the Seattle Weekly, In These Times and Eat the State! This article first appeared in Eat The State!