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The Iran Question

By Kam Zarrabi, Intellectual Discourse - Before getting on with this essay, I feel compelled to clear up a few misperceptions. Commentators and analysts, whether Iranian, Iranian American or, in many cases even of foreign origin, who rise in defense of Iran's position with regard to practically any issue of international concern, are not necessarily Iran apologists or, as often insinuated, paid agents of the Islamic Republic of Iran.


Just as clearly, criticizing policies of the American or Israeli administrations does not make the critic an anti-American, unpatriotic or anti-Semitic. Unfortunately, being unjustly accused or slandered goes with the territory. As the saying goes, those of us who cannot tolerate the heat should stay out of the kitchen.

Kam Zarrabi is the author of
In Zarathushtra's Shadow

 I, as many others who speak or write about the Iranian issues, am not in any position to gain anything materially by supporting the mandates of the Islamic Republic regime in Tehran. I do, however sympathize with the Iranian nation and the hopes and expectations of a people that  have been subjected to underserved hardships, with an awareness of the forces at work that have prevented the aspirations of the Iranian people from materializing in due time.


It is a historical fact, however, that what is righteous or fair doesn't always, or even often, rise to the top by some natural or supernatural buoyancy. In today's interconnected world, any rapid change in the balance of powers, especially in a strategically important region of the shrinking planet, will have wide-range ramifications that affect and redirect the dynamics of that change. The Islamic revolution, a truly grassroots uprising in Iran, was no exception.


For many, it is almost an empirical truth that social freedom, civil liberty, political independence and democratic aspirations are purely Western concepts that are particularly alien to Islamic societies. This kind of self-delusional myth goes hand-in-hand with a general lack of appreciation of the fact that all freedoms and liberties are bound within, and limited by, cultural and legal constraints even among the most liberal secular democracies of the West. In other words, there is no such thing as absolute or unlimited freedoms or liberties, or even a universally accepted definition of these terms. 


If communism failed to deliver its promises of the liberation of the masses from totalitarian rule, this failure, whatever its causes, does not negate the potential that there could be a workable communist or socialist "democracy." We have observed communist dictatorships head for their demise as in the former Soviet Union, or toward remodeling and reform as is the case in today's China, all the result of economic pressures that invariably eclipse ideological factors. We are also observing capitalist democracies that, unless harnessed by "socialist- style" restraints, easily morph into dictatorships of the capitalist monopolies, a precursor to regional, and then global, imperialism.


Similarly, Islam or Islamic government is not by nature incompatible with democracy or democratic reform unless, of course, we chose, as we have, to define democracy in such narrow terms that would exclude from that definition any form of a participatory universal suffrage that does not fit our specific criteria.


Iran's own social uprising in defense of democratic reforms dates back to the first decade of the 20th century. A recent publication, The Quest for Democracy in Iran; A Century of Struggle Against Authoritarian Rule" authored by Professor Fakhreddin Azimi, is recommended reading for those interested in this subject. Interestingly, that "Constitutional Revolution", which limited the powers of the monarchy by establishing a parliamentary system, was also led by the religious hierarchy.


That was no surprise. In a traditional society characterized by disparate ethnic and linguistic blocks and a weak central government totally oblivious to the social condition of the nation, the only ideologically meaningful common denominator is religion. Shi'a Islam, which distinguishes the Iranian nation from the mainstream Sunni world, served as the rallying banner of a popular front against the inept rule of the late Ghajar period, and again, some 70 years later, against the unpopular Pahlavi dictatorial monarchy.


After the success of the earlier Constitutional Revolution, the clerical leaders retreated, by force and by choice, back to their traditional seats of spiritual authority in the Shi'a Iran's equivalents of the Vatican: Ghom and Mashhad. In contrast, after Iran's second uprising, the Islamic Revolution of 1978-79, the clerical authority has not relinquished its control and power, and the revolutionary spirit has remained undiminished after a generation to this day. Why has it been different this time?


As is always the case, the struggle for liberation from corrupt authoritarian rule does not begin by a spontaneous mass uprising among the oppressed proletariat, in other words, the downtrodden and disenfranchised population that is too preoccupied with rudiments of survival to be concerned about such concepts as liberty or democracy. The seeds that germinate into such revolutions are planted by the intelligentsia or the better educated elite, academics, clerics and the always influential merchant classes. But no matter how potent the seeds of reform might be, without rallying the support of the populous, the vehicle of revolutionary change cannot gain sufficient momentum to overcome the powers of the establishment. Against the modern, sophisticated and well regimented internal security and military power of the Iranian regime of the late 70's, it would be hard to imagine any banner or common denominator other than religious ideology that could have unified the masses with any hope of success.


The revolution of 1978-79 thus became the Islamic Revolution under the leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini, who had spent years in exile, returning only after the Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, abdicated the throne for the last time.


Many intellectual Iranians, mostly in self-exile in Europe or the United States, decided to join their counterparts in the homeland to celebrate this historic opportunity and to channel the flood of revolution in the direction of a modern secular democracy even if, at least temporarily, within the framework of Shi'a Islam.


Much to the surprise and dismay of the rejuvenated Left-leaning intelligentsia, the United States was not only unfazed by the success of the Islamic Revolution, it had even encouraged the remaining Iranian military top brass to surrender to the Islamic authorities to prevent a bloody coup and to pave the way toward a smoother transition.  "Mission to Tehran", a book by General Robert Huyser, Jimmy Carter's emissary to Tehran during early 1979, is a helpful reference.


The fact that the United States did not encourage a military coup, as it did under the much less critical conditions in 1953 to abort the nationalist movement of Prime Minister Mosaddegh, was a clear sign that a rapprochement with the new Islamic regime was in the making. This did not sit well with the leftist revolutionaries who could smell the potential reestablishment of yet another, and perhaps stronger, pro-imperialist regime, this time in Islamic colors.


Their suspicions were further confirmed when the Islamic Revolutionary command began a sever crackdown on leftist socialist groups, which pushed them underground and treated them more brutally than what they had suffered under the previous regime. Viewed as counter revolutionaries opposed to the tenets of an Islamic Republic, many escaped this crackdown by remaining dormant, and others were sent to exile, imprisoned or banished.


The perception persists to this day among the more "liberal" secularists and many former royalists that the Islamic Revolution owed its success to encouragement and support by the United States and Great Britain; in other words, the imperialist global powers, without whose endorsement no major political sea change, they firmly believe, would be allowed to take place.


The November 1979 taking of the American embassy and holding the staff as hostages was clearly an attempt by the leftist activists to gain the upper hand. This gave them the ultimate bargaining chips to escape total elimination by the new Islamic regime.


This was indeed a brilliant master stroke. The battle cry of the revolutionary forces moving against the monarchy included phrases such as, "Neither East nor West", or "Freedom and Independence", implying objections to the subservience of the monarchy to the mandates of the imperial West, particularly the United States. The leftist militants had no difficulty in receiving great popular support for their action. The Embassy became known as the "Nest of Spies", notwithstanding the fact that all embassies everywhere in the world are engaged in espionage and influence peddling, and the American embassy in Tehran was no exception.


The Khomeinists were clearly taken by surprise, facing a potentially catastrophic dilemma. Had this hostage taking been sanctioned or planned by the Islamic regime, it would have been the greatest strategic blunder committed by the burgeoning Islamic Republic. Yet, with popular support for this takeover and against the backdrop of anti-American sloganeering and anti-West propaganda, the regime had no option but to try to appear as accepting, even condoning, this action.


The plan by the hostage takers was quite clear. They knew that although the United States had initially been favorable to the establishment of the Islamic Republic and a reopening of normal relations with Iran, the death of American hostages in any numbers in the hands of the militants would leave the American administration with no option but to take immediate and decisive military action against Iran. Submitting to the American demands for the Khomeini regime to condemn and disavow the hostage taking and force the release of the captives would have meant political suicide for the fledgling revolution that was facing some rather stiff internal struggles. Furthermore, any attempt to force the surrender of the militants could have easily resulted in the death of several hostages, anyway.


The only remaining alternative for the regime was to negotiate with the leftist "student" militants, promise them safety and broader political liberties, in order to gain some control over the destiny of the hostages. The subsequent developments snowballed in both the United States and in Iran to a point that emotionally charged, exaggerated and sensationalized tabloid versions of the events totally eclipsed the realities on the ground.


There could be little doubt that the death of any number of those American hostages would have brought about an abrupt end to the militarily defenseless embryonic Islamic government, followed by the return of the Shah and his generals. This was something that the Khomeini regime could not afford. Not just America, but also Khomeini's regime were thus held hostage by the leftist militants. That episode changed forever the direction of Middle East's turbulent history.


It is not a coincidence that a total crackdown on the leftist militants was resumed in full force almost immediately after the release of the hostages upon Ronald Reagan's inauguration as the new President.


The raison d'être for the very legitimacy of Iran's Islamic Revolution, i.e., breaking the shackles of imperialism, and the public angst and grievance in the United States against the hostage taking, have helped perpetuate the prevailing narratives. Unchallenged to this day, these narratives have gained an undeserved and counterproductive historicity, which continues to mar the image of the Islamic Republic of Iran as the enemy of the United States, and America's image in Iran as the Great Satan. Meanwhile, there are forces and special interests that have found the muddied relationship between the United States and Iran quite ripe for exploitation.


It is against this background that we must view and analyze the current events in the Middle East, particularly as they relate to what has been often termed by the American administration as the Iran Question.


The President called Iran a member of the global axis of evil during his State of the Union address in January 2002, accusing the Islamic Republic of perpetrating and supporting international terrorism, human rights violations and, above all, attempts to develop nuclear weapons. Ever since then, many experts in the field of nuclear science and weaponry, academics with knowledge of the Middle East, Iran experts, and even the official arm of the UN that deals with non-proliferation issues, have repeatedly cleared Iran of any wrong doing in violation of the nuclear non proliferation agreement.


Iran's support for the alleged international terrorist organizations hangs on the assumptions that said organizations are, in fact, terrorist groups, a view that puts the United States and Israel in disagreement with the rest of the global community. With regard to human rights violations, although that accusation is quite justified, Iran's situation pales in comparison with what is going on in other societies throughout the world, some of the most egregious violators of human rights being among America's best friends in the Middle East!


There is no shortage of articles by scholars and analysts who try to flush out the fallacy of these accusations and pave the way to a more conciliatory dialog between the two countries. Among them are the two well-known Iranian American scholars, Hooshang Amirahmadi of American Iranian Council (AIC), and Trita Parsi of National Iranian American Council (NIAC), whose clear and concise contributions in their writings and interviews have always been exemplary.


Others, such as Gordon Prather, Gareth Porter, Juan Cole, Chris Hedges, Scott Ritter, Seymour Hersh, Alexander Cockburn ( ) or Justin Raimondo ( ), among a score of nuclear experts, reporters, foreign policy analysts and anti-war activists, have also been critical of the Administration for its policies toward Iran and the Middle East as a whole.


Ironically, as well placed and substantive as all these criticisms have been, their views, as well as those of their Iranian American counterparts, are based on two questionable assumptions: One, it is assumed that high-ranking decision makers in the Administration are unaware of the facts and are working on faulty information. Two, it is also assumed that a rapprochement, a clearer understanding and improved relations between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran are indeed the desired objectives of the current American administration.


The current dilemma or standoff between the United States and Iran can be addressed at two levels. At the street level, the American public, although as surveys show are against another military confrontation in the Middle East and favor a diplomatic approach with Iran by at least a two-to-one margin, show no skepticism or reason to question the prevailing media portrayal of Iran and the Iranians as a threat to America's security and best interests. Peoples' representatives and lawmakers in the Congress are similarly inclined. They vote along party lines and in step with cliques that are submissive to special interest lobbies. Only the few top Administration officials and ranking members of the Senate and the House committees are privies to the kind of information that would be instrumental in the decision making processes.


It is, therefore, an exercise in futility to lobby your representative in Washington to vote against approving the budget to expand and intensify covert operations inside Iran, which recently passed unanimously by both the Republicans and Democrats who serve in special committees. That would be like writing to your child's middle school principal that the students need better teachers or larger classrooms. He or she already knows that; it ain't going to get done that way!


At the higher level, above the pedestrian crowds, however, the situation is quite different. It would be foolish to think that the White House cabal ( perhaps, sadly, excluding the President himself!) and senior State Department people, or our civilian and military intelligence experts, need my advice or those of other experts in various foreign policy fields in order to make better decisions. We will not be telling them anything they don't already know.


What we all know, and what they also know, is the following:

Iran is not in the process of procuring a nuclear bomb at this time. So, what's the fuss?

Even if Iran did acquire the technology to make the bomb, it would never serve Iran's interest to initiate any attack, which would mean mass suicide for Iran. So, what's there to fear?

Iran's aid or support of groups such as the Lebanese Hezbollah and the Palestinian Hamas is a hedge against Israel's habitual offensive posturing and threats against its perceived antagonists, and its insistence to remain the region's unchallenged superpower.  Is this really hard to understand?

Open threats of attack, official policy of the United States for a regime change in Iran, and economic sanctions and diplomatic pressures imposed on the Islamic Republic, have all served to strengthen the Islamic government by providing it with greater legitimacy and rationale to impose stricter measures against the dissidents and reformists. If the aim of the American administration was a regime change and democratic reforms, these policies have clearly accomplished just the opposite.

Similarly, if the American policy is to discourage Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, threats against its security and territorial integrity would compel the Islamic Republic to gain access to at least the technology for some meaningful retaliatory response. Why not quit the threats and then expect Iran to abandon any plans to access the weapon?

According to most military and economic experts, an attack on Iran by the United States or its regional surrogate Israel would not only fail to accomplish the advertised objectives, it would create a regional quagmire whose blowback can devastate the economies of the globe and cost the United States much more than it could possibly gain as the result. Then, why are "all the options" still on the table?

Without question, what Professors Amirahmadi, Parsi, and most other Iran specialists have been saying is true. The only approach to resolving the Iran Question is stopping the threats of attack or regime change, lifting the economic sanctions and opening diplomatic and trade relations with the United States. As most seasoned observers have said, any reform or democratization in Iran must come about by Iranians inside Iran, and that can only happen when the Iranian administration can no longer use threats against Iran's national security and territorial integrity as the reason to hold ever tighter onto the reigns of power and control - and rightly so.

Again, those at the level of decision making in the American administration must also know these facts. So, what factors are preventing these logical steps to lead us to a better solution to the problem?


Isn't the answer quite clear? The objective is simply not a resolution of adversities and the creation of a peaceful atmosphere in the region. It doesn't take a supercomputer to figure out what steps would lead us away from the flashpoint in that combustible atmosphere. On the other hand, knowing from experience if not from logical deduction what policies are most likely to lead us and the region to assured disaster, why are we deliberately heading the wrong way? Is it because the wrong way is actually our prescribed way?! If that is the case, perhaps we should try to understand who or what forces have dictated this prescription.


The beneficiaries of a catastrophic long-term military involvement in the Middle East, particularly involving the United States and Iran, do not include the United States, Iran, or the Middle East region - interestingly barring only Israel!  Other potential beneficiaries include the powerful military industrial complex in the United States and, of course, oil interests.


Starting from the bottom, most observers who have not bought into the embarrassingly adolescent Administration's line about the promotion of democracy and freedom in the Middle East believe that the main reason for the invasion of Iraq was to ensure control over the region's oil.  While the United States does not import much of its oil from the Middle East, there are indeed reasons to be concerned about the quantity, continuity and the direction of the flow of that oil. There are ever hungrier markets for oil particularly in the rapidly growing economies of China and India. Control over this largest and most strategically vital international commodity means controlling the world economy.


The question, however, is whether the strategy of creating and perpetuating mayhem in the oil rich Middle East would be the best way to achieve this objective. Since for practically all oil producing states in that region oil is the most significant and in some cases the only source of revenue, it is ludicrous to think that Iraq or Iran would benefit in any way to use the oil weapon for any conceivable gain or for any length of time. On the other hand, China, India or any other developing country thirsty for energy could easily tap into the open oil markets in the high seas, regardless of where that oil was produced.


Oil is definitely an important concern, but at least in my opinion, not enough of a concern to have warranted going to war and getting stuck in the mess we are in.


The next beneficiary of an ongoing international instability, regional strife and war is thought by many analysts to be the gigantic military industrial complex, a multi trillion dollar enterprise that feeds, and feeds on, the America's economy. As the world's biggest arms supplier, America sell more arms to the world market than all other arms producers combined. From another angle, as long as instability and potential danger to America's strategic interests exist in the world, there will always be a need for a dominant military power to defend these interests. The industries that support the military need, from factories, research centers and shipyards, to aerospace industries, constitute the bulk of America's economic infrastructure.


Again, it is debatable whether the so-called war on terror and the invasion of Iraq, and the threats against Iran, were critical factors in ensuring the longevity of this giant conglomerate. Unlike other industries, the military-related industries do not have to show a profit to remain solvent.


That leaves us with the final option, Israel's interests.


There aren't many observers and analysts, even among the anti-war activist or voices of dissent, who dare express their beliefs that the invasion of Iraq and now the threat of war against Iran and possibly Syria, as well as attempts to change Lebanon's political makeup, all have been, and continue to be, serving Israel's agendas. Yet it can hardly be questioned that serendipitously, but more likely not by accident, the sole beneficiary of these actions has been the Israeli regime.


Rather than repeat what I have been expressing in so many of my previous articles, I would like to draw the readers' attention to my web page, , or to the Archives section of site.


As I have said before, I do not believe that another war is in the making, this time against Iran. Again, at the street level, the reason America should resort to diplomacy and avoid war is not because in the minds of the American people Iran is clear of all charges leveled against it. In the public mind Iran continues to remain a threat to regional and global peace and security. The conventional wisdom, however, has it that America is now stretched too thin militarily, the economy is suffering and people are just tired of this seemingly endless war.


At a higher level, behind the phony façade of the "Iranian threat", there is real concern that, unless the Israeli regime is sufficiently appeased and its appetite satiated, some act of aggression or sabotage against Iran might open the flood gates that would inevitably carry the United States with it and inundate the entire region with catastrophic results for Iran, as well for the American military and global economic interests. I believe that the Israelis are getting what they have been demanding; they simply intend to make sure with sufficient guarantees that the next American administration, Republican or Democrat, will continue along the same path.


In short, America is being blackmailed or, better put, held hostage by Israeli demands.


Unfortunately, writing or lecturing about the unfair treatment Iran has been receiving from the United States, or demonstrating that the Islamic Republic is not really guilty of all the charges constantly brought against it, appeals only to a similar minded minority, while triggering the knee-jerk accusations of pandering to the Islamic Republic regime. The powers at the helm of American foreign policy apparatus are not fazed by our criticisms of their policies. And, sadly, our appeals for a deeper understanding of the issues have little chance of shifting the public opinion away from the long established mindsets. With gasoline prices hovering between four and five dollars a gallon, wildfires devastating vacation spots in the West and flood waters inundating the Midwest, housing crisis, joblessness, and giant corporations laying off thousands more employees, the public has little patience deciphering, let alone accepting, complex geopolitical realities.


Meanwhile, the war drum will continue to beat - the hollower the louder. As Washington and Tel Aviv keep letting it be known that "all options are on the table", and the Unites States Navy embarks on yet another set of war exercises in the Persian Gulf, their Iranian counterparts thump their own chests and threaten to annihilate the enemy in case of any attack upon Iran.


Somehow, the Iranians seem quite blasé about this charade. One doesn't have to be walking the streets of Tehran to see that people are too concerned about the runaway inflation, joblessness, corruption and the general state of the nation's economy to worry about American and Israeli bombs and missiles or nuclear fallout.


I can only conclude that the charade is only aimed at the American public and the lawmakers in Washington, those whose sympathies will ensure that the grand extortionist's demands are met.


Will Barack Obama, or even John McCain, have the foresight, the resolve or the power to draw up a strategy to break the bondage of subservience to the Israeli regime in dealing with the Middle East, particularly concerning Iran? Can Israel be appeased long enough to allow a change of policy toward Iran demonstrate that a normalization of relations with the Islamic Republic would not endanger the passionate attachment or the one-sided love affair between America and the Jewish state?


Only time, spiced with a modicum of sanity, will tell.


Kam Zarrabi

Kam Zarrabi is the author of In Zarathushtra's Shadow and Necessary Illusion. He is available to conduct lectures and seminars on international affairs, particularly in relation to Iran, with focus on US/Iran issues, at formal and informal gatherings or academic centers anywhere in the country. To make the necessary arrangements, please contact him at More information about Mr. Zarrabi and his work is available at:


... Payvand News - 07/08/08 ... --

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