All Eyes On Iran


At no point in recent memory has the Islamic Republic of Iran dominated headlines as it has these past four weeks. Virtually all Western governments and mainstream commentators have rushed to condemn the Iranian Government’s violent crackdown on opposition protesters.

Key Western European countries Britain, France and Germany have led the charge. German Chancellor Angela Merkel likened Iran to the repressive East German state of the Cold War period while French President Nicolas Sarkozy described the elections as a "fraud".

Yet no government has been under more pressure to chastise Iran than the United States. Although President Barack Obama has voiced concern over the crackdown on dissent, he has steered clear of questioning the veracity of the poll that saw incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad returned to power.

Within the Obama Administration, however, Vice President Joe Biden has led a camp that favours a more antagonistic approach to Iran. Biden followed earlier remarks about possible election rigging — a stance at odds with the official Administration policy of non-interference in Iran’s domestic affairs — with the assertion last weekend that the US would not stand in the way of Israel were it to consider an attack on Iran. Nor it seems, according to the London Times, would the Saudi Arabian Government.

Thanks to the pioneering work of respected political scientists John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, the role of the Israel Lobby in shaping United States policy on the Middle East over the past several years is already well known. But even this year, the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, has been pushing for new United States sanctions on Iran, this time to penalise countries that purchase gas from it. According to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, AIPAC activists have been lobbying the Obama Administration hard. This follows a long history of belligerency towards Iran that includes the aforementioned threats of unilateral armed attacks on its territory.

Iran continues to suffer from economic sanctions placed on it by the UN Security Council over its nuclear power program. In contrast, Israel already possesses a formidable nuclear arsenal while the United States is assisting Saudi Arabia, the one country whose national ideology most closely resembles that of the Taliban, to develop its nuclear power program.

It is perhaps not surprising then that establishment commentators in Iran — both in government and in the media — have looked to foreign conspiracies to explain the violence. Even before his election victory speech, Ahmadinejad had implied that mainstream political opponents like Mir Hossein Mousavi were being supported by foreign powers. The recent arrest of British embassy staff was allegedly in response to Britain’s "central" role in fomenting violent unrest in the country.

Allegations such as these often verge on the paranoid — throughout the recent election campaign, Ahmadinejad frequently implied that reformist opposition politicians were seeking to destabilise the country with the assistance of foreign powers. Over the past few weeks, former protesters have been shown on television claiming to have been "provoked" into causing mayhem on the streets by Western media like the BBC and Voice of America. References by Iranian authorities to interference from abroad play on Iranians’ collective memory of their country’s exploitation by foreign powers, be they Russia, Britain or the United states, in centuries past.

All of this, along with the proliferation of commentary on the lack of democracy and freedom in Iran, places the vital Middle Eastern nation in an eerily similar position to that faced by Iraq under Saddam Hussein just prior to the March 2003 invasion of the country by the United States.

On that occasion as now, commentators spoke of the West’s responsibility to help Middle Eastern societies attain democracy.

There is unquestioningly a deficit of democracy and political freedom in Iran. One of the features of the fallout from the recent presidential elections has been the swift and often brutal clampdown on popular dissent, as demonstrated by the arrest of several reformist politicians and street-level clashes between police and protesters that have killed scores and injured hundreds more.

There is strong evidence to suggest that the elections were at least partially rigged. On 22 June, Iran’s Guardian Council, the institution that oversees elections, admitted that more votes were collected than actual voters in 50 cities.

Yet the Guardian Council affirmed Ahmadinejad, the candidate it is widely believed to have preferred in the first place, as victor after a partial recount of votes. It is unlikely that we will ever conclusively know if, and to what extent, the elections were rigged.

High profile opposition leaders like the recent presidential candidates Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, and Nobel Peace Prize winning human rights activist Shirin Ebadi risked imprisonment by calling for the elections to be annulled.

As the protests have died down, it is unclear whether the groundswell of support for reformist politicians will lead to an institutional shift away from the conservative power-base that has existed since the 1979 revolution.

Yet there is more to popular Iranian politics than meets the eye. Support for Ahmadinejad remains strong among the working poor throughout the nation for whom economic marginalisation is still a greater concern than political variety. Ahmadinejad’s strident rhetoric may frighten us in the West, but many ordinary Iranians see him as a bulwark against foreign interference that history has taught them to be ever fearful of.

Perhaps the greatest message of the past four weeks has been that real power in Iran rests with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the Guardian Council and other institutions — like the Revolutionary Guard and Basjit — dominated by them.

Yet many of the most vocal critics of the establishment, like the wealthy reformist camp mentor and former president Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, are themselves powerful political players.

It is this latter aspect of Iranian political life that makes the country so unique, and paradoxical among the largely authoritarian states of the Middle East where dissent, even from within centres of power, is rarely aired publicly.

That distinction has not been made in public debate in the West. Iran may be repressive, but so too are the Arab-dominated regimes that we consider "moderates" and allies.

In Iran as with most of the Middle East it may well take decades before ordinary citizens will be able to freely and safely challenge the institutions of the state, whether through the ballot box or on the streets.

The broad-based street-level push for greater freedom we have all witnessed in Iran of late has occurred despite, and not because of, the West’s indignation over Iranian authorities. The Iranian establishment might find it convenient to paint protesters as pawns of foreign powers — and Western nations may like to see themselves as bastions of democracy helping to deliver greater freedoms to the oppressed peoples of Iran — but the scale and spontaneity of the nascent pro-democracy movement, and the fact that it cuts across social and economic divides, suggests that its origins are firmly rooted in Iranian soil.

The prospect of a genuinely democratic Iran has been viewed with some hostility by the United States and the major Western nations that follow its lead in the Middle East. Such developments risk undermining the power dynamic that has seen foreign powers and local authoritarian regimes monopolise economic and political life for several centuries.

Perhaps it is the development of a pro-democracy movement from within a country such as Iran that has confounded so many Western observers.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.