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Iran in the crosshairs and at the crossroads

By Kam Zarrabi

The confrontational stance between Iran and the United States is seemingly coming to a head now after a quarter century of unnecessarily hostile and mutually counterproductive relationships. Thanks to the overzealous media spin artists and highly motivated special interest groups, negative imageries about Iran have so permeated and polluted the public mind that any detoxification effort, if even possible, might require a long time.

In any realistic analysis or appraisal of possible developments in U.S./Iran relations, it is imperative to keep in mind the power and influence of mass media over the public's mindset in America, as well as the importance of the public's approval of any changes in the Administration's course on policy matters. How, in a liberal democracy that enjoys the freedom of the press and broad access to information, the public could be subjected to brainwashing propaganda or remain in the dark about important international issues, deserves some thought.

Up until rather recently America had very little to worry about while the rest of the world was struggling against a whole host of problems; hunger, disease, poverty, dictatorial rule, instability, revolutions and wars. Isolated and sheltered from global turmoil and tragedies, the American men and women continued safely to pursue their goals and ambitions of achieving ever-higher standards of living for themselves and securer futures for their children. When it came to the knowledge of the world outside, the typical attitude was what the legendary Will Rogers used to say; something like "All I know is what I read in newspaper headlines." Well, it worked!

Those of us who have lived in other parts of the world are often surprised at the blissful naiveté of the average, even relatively well-educated, American regarding anything outside the United States, or even outside their home states or towns. This truly enviable state of euphoric obliviousness is symptomatic of a highly privileged status, symbolic of the proverbial Good Life.

The Good Life is also accompanied by other quite enviable gifts of a highly evolved civilization: freedom of enterprise, freedom of expression, and heightened socioeconomic expectations, etc. All this has been going hand-in-hand to provide the nation with a sense of pride and accomplishment, deserving of a dynamic, enterprising society.

Now, let us examine the downside to all this.

In a liberal, capitalist democracy based on free enterprise, practically every meaningful undertaking comes with a price tag. In other words, there is a bottom line in dollars and cents, whether in black ink or in red, that indicates the success or failure of any endeavor - any endeavor at all, whether material or intellectual.

The news and information media are no exception. All major news and entertainment services, large and small, are corporations with budgets, officers and shareholders. The success of any print or electronic media depends on the size of the readership and audiences who must buy the products they promote. A newspaper with dwindling readership cannot last for long. A television or radio program that loses its rating also loses its sponsors and must relinquish its airtime. The surest way to guarantee the success, i.e., the longevity, of the mass media outlets is to appeal to the tastes of as large an audience as possible. To ensure success, therefore, an enterprise must either offer the public what that public wants, or must create a need in the minds of the public for a product that the enterprise is prepared to supply.

We are all familiar with the negative or unintended consequences of the entrepreneurial efforts by some of the largest corporations in this country. The giant tobacco conglomerates, for example, created huge markets for their products through some of the most imaginative and enticing promotional campaigns. Fast-food chains and sugar-saturated soft drinks industries may also be categorized as enterprises whose success comes at the expense of the consumers' poor health. In such cases appropriate government agencies may take actions within the limits of the law in order to minimize the damage and "detoxify" the harm already done.

When it comes to the news and information media, there is a total absence of this kind of interest, oversight or supervision. In other words, while the physical health of the public at large is definitely of great concern and subject to some degree of regulatory measures, the general awareness of the public of world affairs is left totally at the discretion of media manipulators.

The paradox here is that, should there be any meaningful governmental control over the freedom of the press, that freedom is, by definition, aborted or at least curtailed to an unhealthy degree. Obviously, with too much restriction and control the press becomes simply a tool of propaganda for the administration and loses its credibility altogether, as evidenced in many parts of the world, including in our own homeland, Iran.

Ironically, given unbridled freedom, the press becomes just another type of business enterprise with the primary aim of making money rather than objectively informing the public. Of course, a more sophisticated public with more knowledge or appreciation of affairs of the country and the globe would create enough of a demand for objective and comprehensive reporting to subsidize such enterprise. We have those sophisticated or worldly crowds to a much larger extent in Western Europe and few other places, but not here in America, at least not yet.

The danger here is that, while the average unsuspecting citizen is confidently engaged in the pursuit of his or her goals, self-serving influence peddlers use the powerful vehicle of mass communications to their own advantage. When such media manipulation is carefully and cunningly planned and carried out, the message permeates the public mindset, not as a commercial promotion or political propaganda that it really is, but as an unchallenged or indisputable fact. This works best when the public knowledge of certain issues is practically nonexistent, such as matters dealing with foreign policy in distant parts of the world as has been the case with the Middle East affairs.

It is no surprise that in practically anything said or written in this country regarding the "Iranian problem" these days, reference is made to Iran as the biggest supporter of international terrorism, as well as to Iran's clandestine efforts to develop nuclear weapons or stockpiling of other weapons of mass destruction. These accusations are never presented as allegations or suspicions, but as solid and irrefutable facts that only the supporters of that rogue state could possibly deny. Furthermore, Iran is portrayed as a member of the Axis of Evil, as the American President's speechwriter managed to interject in his State of the Union address, and as an enemy state threatening the very security of the United States of America.

This is all reminiscent of the accusations brought against Iraq shortly before it was invaded. America's official line against Iraq consisted of "facts" gathered or, better put, generated, by intelligence agencies whose findings left the likes of Mr. Rumsfeld no question but that Iraq was in possession of hundreds of tons of weaponized chemical and biological agents, nuclear 'dirty bombs', and had definite ties with the Al Gha'eda terrorists. As it now appears, these accusations only served as pretexts to invasion for a change of regime in Iraq. The Undersecretary of Defense, Paul Wolfowitz, admitted just recently that the regime change was the real objective from the start, and weapons of mass destruction a more acceptable cover for public consumption. As has been clearly admitted by the likes of 'The Project for the New American Century' think tank in Washington, such scenarios as unfolded in Iraq are destined to be repeated in that area in a rather quick succession, if the neocons have their way.

It should be quite clear to Iran observers here, as well as to the Iranians in Iran, that accusations and allegations, true or false, have little to do with the ultimate decision of taking hostile actions, covertly or openly, against Iran by the United States or its protégé, Israel. The Iranian administration can turn blue in the face trying to prove that their nuclear projects are perfectly legal and peaceful, or that there is no Al Gha'eda connection there, or that Hezbollah of Lebanon whom they support is not really a terrorist organization; none of that is going to do them any good. After it's all over, Wolfowitz, Perle, Rumsfeld, and others of similar ilk, will simply admit that the mission was regime change and the rest just publicly palatable pretexts to make things look good!

The so-called anti-war organizations and crowds here can say whatever they wish, like blowing in the wind. The Iranians or Iranian-Americans in this country can try, but unfortunately in vain, to influence Washington to reconsider the neocons' empire-building blueprint for the New American Century. However, the real machinations behind the scenes, the motivating forces that drive America's foreign policy in the Middle East, go unnoticed and unchecked for the most part.

Is there anything wrong with that? In an ideal world, from a universal perspective, any action that results in one's gain at the expense of another's demise is by its very nature wrong. But, understanding that this is not a utopian world, we must accept that the powerful can and will impose its will over the weak; and, if the dominant power preaches morals and values that characterize the American ideals, it will try to make such actions look totally justifiable and righteous at the same time. To silence the internal oppositions, hostile actions carried out for less than noble motives are sold to the public as preemptive or defensive measures necessary to safeguard the nation against imminent danger.

In the case of Iraq, it is now abundantly clear that, no matter what the Iraqi regime had done in the face of invasion threats, the mission was not going to be delayed beyond a certain point. It was obvious to practically every veteran observer of international affairs that the pre-invasion efforts by the United Nations weapons inspectors, as well as the aggressive investigations by the CIA and British intelligence agencies, helped to ascertain that Iraq was not actually capable of mounting any meaningful defense or counterattack with or without weapons of mass destruction. Had there been any sign of such weapons or the probability of their usage by the Iraqis, the invasion plans would have, for very logical reasons, been postponed and the inspection process allowed to continue, until Iraq was disarmed under the auspices of the United Nations. Any other course of action would have put the so-called "Coalition of the Willing" forces seriously in harms' way, which, especially after the Vietnam experience, would have been totally unacceptable here at home.

If we examine the military campaigns undertaken by the United States since the Vietnam war, whether it was in Panama, Granada, Iraq I, Afghanistan or Iraq II, the title of "War" could hardly apply. Regardless of how history is going to refer to such excursions, a war is a confrontation where the enemy actually shoots back and has a chance, however slight, of doing significant damage. Vietnam, Korea, and the two World Wars were wars. With satellite surveillance, high-tech, long distance, high-speed and stealth aerial assaults, Afghanistan or Iraq type of missions amount to no more than the proverbial turkey-shoots or cakewalks. Had Iraq been actually known, as was wrongly claimed, to be equipped with weapons of mass destruction or even a viable conventional capability, the mere apprehension about the number of body bags potentially coming back here, or the real danger of massive warheads hitting Israeli cities, would have been motivation enough to pursue diplomatic solutions to defang Saddam Hussein. In other words, disarmament would have taken place first, preceding a rather effortless regime-change later! Perhaps it was a calculated strategy by the Iraqi regime to make the UN inspectors' mission as difficult and as prolonged as possible in order to keep the suspicions alive that Iraq might indeed be hiding WMDs. Saddam could have been hoping that by this delaying tactic the mounting international opposition to the American invasion would thwart those plans.

It is a given that sovereign states have the right, as well as the obligation, to pursue their respective national interests by any means they can get away with. In global affairs there is no such thing as altruism, only allusion to humanitarian aspirations in order to promote one's own interests. Therefore, analyzing such strategies from a purely pragmatic point of view, one can only question whether or not certain actions do actually have a reasonable chance of resulting in meaningful advantages and desirable outcomes. This is particularly worthy of careful study when an action taken in the pursuit of the nation's perceived interests results in deaths and devastation of peoples and cultures elsewhere that might have significant future repercussions.

(I would highly recommend two books currently available at any bookstore or library: War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, by Chris Hedges, a former N Y Times foreign correspondent; and an older book, Blowback - The Costs and Consequences of American Empire, by Chalmers Johnson, professor emeritus at the University of California, San Diego.)

What lessons can be learned from the foregoing with regard to the dangerous posturing between the Eagle and the Lion these days?

First, the damage is already done. We could blame everything to events from the takeover of the American embassy in Tehran in 1979, or the downing of the Iranian passenger Airbus by the American Navy soon after, to the burning of the American flags and chants of Death to America in Iran, or America's support for the Iraqi regime during the Iran/Iraq war. However, had it not been for the persistence of the zealous hate-mongers on both sides, pragmatic interests of both nations would have led to a more constructive relationship. Two nations do not have to demonstrate love or admiration for each other in order to have mutually beneficial interactions. A less isolated and more economically sound Iran would have likely gone through a natural transformation from its post-revolutionary convulsive radicalism into a more liberal or secular attitude long ago. This wouldn't have been the first time such a transformation had taken place. Iran's Constitutional Revolution of nearly a hundred years ago was also supported, if not spearheaded, by the clerical or Islamic parties, who then retreated back to their seminaries in Ghom and Mashhad, giving way to a strongly secular, however authoritarian, Pahlavi monarchy.

What more than anything else has contributed to the longevity of an increasingly troubled and unpopular conservative regime in Iran is the very economic stagnation or the sense of insecurity that has been perpetuated in that country.

As the result, radical conservatives in Iran have managed to maintain control over the vital elements of power in that country, while their American counterparts, along with opportunistic special interests groups, have taken advantage of public sentiments to pursue their adversarial agendas and ambitions against Iran.

Second, there could be little doubt that, should the current trends in America's mission in the Middle East continue beyond the 2004 Presidential Elections, a regime change in Iran, through whatever means, will remain the goal of the Administration.

Third, is the safe assumption that, considering Iran's size, geography, and population, favorable conditions do not exist for an American military invasion such that took place in Iraq. As far as long-range surgical strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities by the United States or Israel, the resulting blowback would destabilize the entire region, possibly beyond repair. The only viable approach would therefore be attempts to destabilize the Iranian regime internally through covert or open support for whatever dissident group or groups could better force its way in, or might be in a better position to muster stronger support within Iran.

Fourth, is accepting the reality that the primary objective in any American-imposed regime change is not going to be the promotion of democracy or the improvement of Iran's social or economic conditions. As has been the case before, the intended "friendly" regime will simply be a "compliant" regime that contributes to the "stability" or predictability of the region by remaining "compliant". As we have seen, the so-called friendly regimes are more often unpopular, repressive regimes that use the power of the state to enforce their rule over their masses. In actual practice, democracy and self-determination are not desirable features of "compliant" states within the sphere of a superpower's hegemonic influence.

So, what should the Iranian people be anticipating in the foreseeable future as events unfold within the American administration, and in the Middle East theater?

There are already gathering forces here and there that are anticipating the winds of change to gain enough momentum to launch them into the forefront as the viable candidates to replace Iran's Islamic rule. Many interested Iranians, both here and in Iran, are genuinely skeptical of whatever regime becomes the successor to the current Iranian regime, and however this succession takes place, would it be the best choice for Iran and the Iranians. This skepticism is well founded, considering that any regime change supported by outside forces cannot but result in a subservient entity, dependent and obligated to its foreign master or benefactor.

We have been reading and listening to the pros and cons of Reza Pahlavi returning to the Iranian throne with American and Israeli support. In this regard Reza Pahlavi has been compared to Masood Rajavi of the Mojahedin Khalgh militant group, and Ahmed Chalabi of Iraq, both regarded by many as traitors to their respective nations by siding with the enemies of their homelands for their own personal ambitions and gains. More recently, we hear about the Azerbayjani professor, Mahmud Ali Chehregani, who claims to represent the large Azeri minority group in Iran, and who advocates the formation of a federated Iran modeled after the United States, where each ethnic group, Azeri, Baluch, Kurd, Arab, etc., has a degree of autonomy within a federation under a secular central regime. In either case, what might remain of the Motherland seems of little concern. Both Reza Pahlavi and Mr. Chehregani, as well the Mojahedin Khalgh leadership, are currently discussing their possibilities with influential agencies and individuals within the Administration; in the Congress, Pentagon, and various conservative think tanks.

From the opposite side we hear voices that promote changes by Iranians and within Iran itself, with no outside meddling or support. We have President Khatami and the Iranian elected officials in the Parliament who advocate gradual democratic reforms, and blame the religious hardliners for blocking their efforts to implement the needed changes. Some very pragmatic Islamists from the supposedly orthodox or conservative flank, such as the former Iranian president, Hashemi Rafsanjani, believe that the Islamic Republic can develop a constructive dialogue with the United States, should the latter abandon its "arrogant" (as he calls it) behavior, and enter the rapprochement at the ground level and with mutual respect. There is also the Grand Ayatollah Montazeri with his large following, who believes in the separation of religion from the affairs of the state, and has spent long years under house arrest for his rather liberal, unorthodox views. There are numerous student and political activist groups whose members have been jailed, tortured and worse, who are ready to unify into viable opposition forces if given the opportunity and the necessary organizational framework.

In short, there is a definite sense of urgency, as well as a significant degree of discontent and dissent within Iran today, particularly among the more educated upper-middle class and the urban youth, the same groups who had supported the more reform-minded President Khatami, and who have since lost patience for, and even faith in, the long overdue reforms.

But, none of these Iran-based potential alternatives promise the kind of regime change that would satisfy the requirements as envisioned by America's neocon architects of the future Middle East. In fact, one of the main concerns is whether a future more liberal or democratic regime in Iran would not be more nationalistic, anti-Zionist, and even more dedicated to pursue Iran's nuclear ambitions as a deterrent to aggressive intentions from outside.

Here, for the sake of discussion, we can separate the issue of regime change into two categories: One category concerns the potential turn of events should the current neoconservative or hawkish attitude continue to dominate America's foreign policies even after the 2004 elections. The other possibility is a change of administration in Washington, and a return to a less confrontational or bellicose approach to foreign affairs.

In the first scenario where the influence of the neoconservative hawks guide the policies of the United States overseas, this influence seems so overwhelming within a Republican dominated administration that it has forced diplomacy out of the State Department's vocabulary. Under the prevailing conditions no amount of educating the American voting public, pleading, reasoned arguments or diplomacy, short of total capitulation, would deter the Administration from its belligerent approach. The success of the neoconservative hawks in the mission against Iraq has encouraged and emboldened the Administration to turn its focus in other directions, to Syria, Lebanon, and Iran.

To prevent such an event, Iran is left with but two clear options: either capitulate with all the indignities and humiliations that it would entail; or, make it simply too costly for any adversary to embark on an aggressive mission. It is obvious which path the Iranian regime has adopted, especially with the precedence already set by North Korea who has steadfastly stuck to its hard-line policy of arming itself with nuclear weapons, or at least claiming that it has. Under these circumstances, the only plausible scenario for a regime change remains an incursion or insurrection by some Iranian groups sponsored by the United States. That, at best, will be an ill-fated and short-lived experiment with potentially disastrous results for Iran and the region as a whole. Even though some of the more frustrated opposition groups in Iran have said they'd welcome any change, even if imported or directly funded from abroad, a repeat of the 1953 coup d'etat would hardly be tolerated by the nation.

On the other hand, should the American presidency change hands in the coming elections, or should the American ayatollahs lose their grip on the Administration's throat by some act of Divine intervention, the alternatives gain new dimensions. The situation in Iran has been steadily deteriorating both socially and economically. There remains absolutely no doubt that change, some change, is in the air, whether it be a gradual transition to a more liberal "Islamic" democracy, or a more radical, even bloody, transformation away from anything resembling the status quo.

While the atmosphere in Iran, particularly in the larger centers of population, is ready for change, it is not quite clear as yet whether the administration of Mohammad Khatami will be able to overcome the obstacles confronting it. Continuing resistance against reform measures proposed by Khatami's administration by the religious orthodoxy on the one hand, and dwindling faith in his resolve to succeed by a discouraged public, on the other, have been quite discouraging to all but the most optimistic.

Should Mohammad Khatami's administration fail to deliver some measure of success, translated into a noticeable economic improvement and social opening, the alternative leaves but a grim forecast. If the Islamic revolution of 1978 was a relatively calm or bloodless event as revolutions go, any social uprising in opposition to the regime today will be anything but. In 1978 the leadership abdicated rather quietly, and the military, having their top brass fleeing the country ahead of the storm, simply laid down their arms and joined the crowds. Today, the rank and file of the religious hierarchy of the Islamic Republic have no place to run, unlike the former ruling class who were perhaps even more acclimated to the European and American milieus than to their home country. In addition, uprooting the Islamic core of the system will require reaching into the depths of every village and town throughout the nation, while before, the vital organs of the regime were much fewer in number and concentrated in fewer locations.

Should a future American administration find it more advantageous to encourage and welcome a rapprochement with Iran, a meaningful diplomatic opening will lead to trade and economic reengagements that can inject vital blood into the Iran's anemic veins. A change in a positive direction in America's policy toward Iran is the only safe and sound remedy for Iran's economic, and by extension, social dilemmas.

Understanding how the United States might perhaps find such an opening with Iran advantageous is the key to solving this 25 years-long enigma. Even if the neocons and Washington hawks lose their influence in a future American administration, certain principles will not change in any foreseeable future. As long as Iran insists on maintaining a threatening posture toward Israel, whether rightfully in reaction to Israeli belligerence, moral support for the plight of the Palestinians, or obligations toward the Lebanese Hezbollah group, etc., such rapprochement cannot take place.

Accepting that Israeli interests drive America's policies in the Middle East, perhaps even ahead of the economics of oil, Iran must measure its own aims and advantages in adopting meaningful policies toward Israel if an opening with the United States is deemed essential to Iran's future. Again, there is no need for mutual admiration or love affair between two states in order to have a workable relationship or understanding, in other words, a détente.

This may not have been easy or practical in the past, as the perpetuation of unrest and turmoil in the Middle East has always served Israel's best interests. What has guaranteed America's total commitment and unquestioned backing for Israel in the form of economic and military assistance and diplomatic support has been the image projected in the public mind of a beleaguered state in a sea of turmoil. Israel has successfully established its image in the American mind as an outpost for everything that the "civilized" world stands for, in other words, an extension of American values and principles, in a hostile, barbaric frontier. In actual fact, Israel's short history parallels in a disturbing way America's story of its Manifest Destiny not long ago! This is perhaps the main reason that in practically every case where the international consensus has rallied against Israeli atrocities, the sole voice that has vetoed any official condemnation or punitive measures has been that of the United States.

This passionate and blind support has led to much collateral damage to America's direct interests in the region, created enemies out of potential friends, and has transformed America's image from that of a benevolent benefactor to an international bully with a big stick. This image is not likely to change soon, nor is the role that Israel plays in maintaining its favored status in the American mind.

The eight-year war of devastation that, towards the end, and thanks to America's support of Saddam Hussein, could have brought Iran down to its knees, finally ended in a ceasefire, with Ayatollah Khomeini accepting the humiliation by symbolically drinking of the hemlock to prevent further Iranian bloodshed. Even the most radical can come to terms with realities of life, when the chips are down.

Today, the effort by the United States to prepare the grounds for the implementation of a new Road Map to resolve the Palestinian/Israeli deadlock, presents new opportunities that did not exist before. America's pressure against Syria and Lebanon, after the elimination of Iraq as supporters of antagonism against Israel, is a clear indication that Israel may now be on notice to seriously reengage in meaningful negotiations with the Palestinians. The increased pressure against Iran may, at least to a significant degree, be for the same reasons.

The government of President Khatami has already indicated its readiness to accept and support any resolution of the Israeli/Palestinian issues, if the terms of such settlement are acceptable to the Palestinians themselves. The support for the militant elements of Hezbollah has already been curtailed. The representatives of the conservative ayatollahs who openly oppose any rapprochement with the "Great Satan" have been long engaged in secret talks with Satan's agents, both in Iran and abroad, regarding Afghanistan, Iraq, and Al Gha'eda elements. In other words, behind all the saber-rattling and name-calling on both sides, some potentially fruitful horse-trading has also been taking place. These are hopeful signs.

A word of caution to all those "patriotic" young Iranians here who like to vent off their testosterone-laden "sho'ars" on various websites under their very "Persian" pseudonyms adopted from the pages of Shah-nameh: It is easy to sit at the edge of the "gowd" and shout, "lengesh kon"! Get your sweet asses over there and see whether you still favor a devastating and bloody revolution or war that might or might not lead to a regime change for the better!

... Payvand News - 6/9/03 ... --

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