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Debating the Regime Change and Iranian-American Identity

By Sasan Seifikar


One of the most interesting debates to emerge in the past month is about whether or not the US should reach out to Iran. This debate encompasses many of the controversial issues that divide the Iranian community outside Iran. But like most debates, this one is full of passion and strong feelings and sometimes the parties involved get personal and nasty with those that they take to be their opponents. In this way the debate becomes murky, confusing and often distorted. I want to clear away some of the confusion and shed some light on the issues involved in this debate and what the different sides are saying.


As a background, I begin by looking closely at Roger Cohen's views on better relations with Iran and Obama's recent New Year message to Iranians. I will analyze their ideas and words and I speculate about what is behind them and their significance. I will then focus on regime change and argue against it. Next I will look at how the way Iranian-Americans define themselves in the wake of 9/11 compels them to embrace regime change. I will then plead for civility in politics.


Cohen's Suggestion


Roger Cohen who is a N.Y. Times journalist recently went to Iran and spoke to many Iranians including Iranian Jews. He has subsequently written about his trip and has started a campaign of urging the US government to engage and have a dialogue with Iran. Cohen argues that despite the regime's provocative rhetoric, those who govern Iran can be very pragmatic when it comes to politics. He gives a few examples of Iran's actions in the international arena to support this. He points out that Iranians ended the Iraq war, have worked with Israel and the US when it suited them, and they have periodically allowed more freedoms and liberalism, even though later in some cases they have taken some of these back. He then argues that the best way for the West and in particular the US to avert Iran from developing the bomb, is to change its threatening posture towards Iran and to develop relations with Iran and in this way to take away the main justification for having it, i.e., to deter and prevent an attack by the US and the West.


Obama's Overtures


Cohen's proposal goes along with U.S. President Obama's shift in policy towards Iran and his offer of an olive branch to the Iranian government. Recently Obama sent a message of good wishes to the people of the 'Islamic Republic of Iran' for the Iranian New Year and he called for a peaceful and honest dialogue to resolve outstanding differences between the two nations which have had no diplomatic relations since 1980.


As he had promised in his campaign, Obama offered a 'new beginning' and extended a hand of friendship seeking to end decades of mutual suspicion and ill feelings between the US and Iran. Obama referred to Iran's great and celebrated culture and its contributions to the world civilization and he appealed to our common humanity. He recognized for the first time the Islamic revolution and the current regime. Obama's address also signalled that his administration recognizes Iran as a potential negotiating partner. Obama said that the US wants Iran to take its 'rightful place' in the international community. 


What was most significant about Obama's message was that it shows a real and important rethinking and change in US policy towards Iran and in this way Obama made a decisive break with his predecessor George Bush who called Iran a member of the 'axis of evil' and led the charges against Iran in the international arena that it wanted to build a nuclear bomb and was sponsoring terrorism. Instead of threatening Iran, talking tough, and saying things like 'all options are still on the table', Obama was reconciliatory and he spoke of mutual respect.


Skepticism about Better Relations within the Iranian-American Community


As can be expected, there are those who are sceptical about the wisdom of seeking closer relations with Iran. Some Republicans and Neo-Conservatives who have supported President Bush's disastrously failed policies in Iraq and who are still incapable of even admitting that they were wrong, warn not only that nothing good will come out of being friendly with Iran, but they also argue that there is a great danger in the idea that you can have a dialogue and reason with evil. These are the people who want to bomb and occupy Iran in order to topple the current regime. They are crying wolf and they are convinced that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons and they want to stop it. 


But there are also many Iranian-Americans who believe that the best way that the US administration can help the people of Iran is to rid them of their current leaders. Some Iranian-Americans fear that normalizing diplomatic relations with Iran will only strengthen the current regime and their hold on power. Some argue that Cohen is whitewashing Iran's regime and overlooking its repression and brutality. They believe that both Cohen and Obama are at best na´ve, ignorant and misguided. 


Opposition to a War with Iran


The problem with these various arguments is that they overlook the fact that the main reason the administration and people like Cohen promote closer relations with Iran is that they do not want the US to have a war with Iran. The war with Iraq has cost many lives. It has drained the US economy. It has made the US a villain in the international community and it has not made the Middle East any more secure and stable. A war with Iran would be a big mistake because it would hurt the US standing even more. It would put unbearable constraints on the economy and bring more instability to the region. It would also undoubtedly bring misery and hardship to many Iranians. Arguably, in the aftermath of the war with Iraq, every conscientious American has a responsibility to look closer at the issues surrounding the conflict with Iran and not to let him/her self be lied to, scared, and fooled by the powers to be, yet again.


Cohen is against another war therefore he is trying to humanize the people of Iran and to some extent the Islamic regime. That is also why Obama's tone is friendly and he is seeking closer ties with Iran. It is important to remember that just as demonization and the rhetoric of cultural difference promote and justify conflict and aggression, the emphasis on commonality and respectful dialogue bring people closer and facilitate peace. Cohen and Obama are certainly in no way champions of the Islamic regime or its founding principles. They are well aware of its repressions and brutality. But they want to change the perception that Iran is a totalitarian evil empire like the Nazi Germany, or the greatest danger to world peace, because on the first look, these caricatures provide good justifications and pave the way for the use of force against Iran.


Cohen is warning us against fear mongering and the view that Iranians are religious nuts with a commitment to acquiring nukes and using them for a holy war. Cohen tries to dispel this by shedding light on the richness of the Iranian culture. He also argues that the Iranian government has not been monolithic for the past 30 years and that when necessary it has been flexible. Cohen argues that Iran has some democratic institutions such as presidential elections which are genuine contests. He points out that there is some political openness in Iran and that there is also a variety of points of view along with serious debates and discussions of important issues. Moreover Cohen argues that Iran is a multi-cultural society where various ethnic and religious groups live in relative peace with each other. The main line of thinking which is behind Cohen's ideas about Iran is that 'they are a lot like us, so let's talk to them'. Instead of a war between Islam and the West, Cohen is promoting a dialogue between civilizations.


Obama's overtures are aim at giving diplomacy and engagement a chance. Obama knows that conflicts are made worse by hostility, intimidation, disrespect, and a war of words, and that they can only be resolved by talking. Respectful dialogue is not cowardly or na´ve. But it is the only way to dissipate tension, build confidence and transform relationships. Talking and discussion are essential to peace building. To speak respectfully and sincerely to one's opponents is the civilized way to approach differences of opinion. This is more than just talking, it is taking solid action. Obama acknowledges that the US and Iran have serious differences on some issues, but he thinks that some of these can be resolved through closer relations.


Obama invited Iran to re-enter the world community on the condition that it stops military build-up and meddling in the affairs of other countries by appealing to our common humanity and suggesting that there can be a new U.S.-Iranian relationship based on what the two countries and people have in common. Obama's emphasis on our commonalities and universal connectedness was an attempt to bridge differences and to bring the two nations and their people together. His main goal was to lessen the religious and ideological splits that divide US and Iran, so that the problems of the region can be more effectively dealt with. In this way Obama signaled his desire to find common ground with Iranians and the recognition that the US and Iran need each other in order to establish long term peace in the region.


Regime Change versus Democratic Reform


Another problem with skepticism about closer ties with Iran and advocating regime change is that there is no guarantee that a regime change will bring about a better system of government in Iran. The US and other foreign powers have always first and foremost looked out for their own interest and the multinational corporations, when it comes to the Middle East. There is no reason to think that things will be different this time. Moreover, the bombardment, destruction, and looting of Iran will only strengthen the worst elements of the ruling class, both in the long run and in the short run.


Generally it is undeniable that over the past few years outside threats and intimidation have led to militarization, more security concerns and crackdowns, and a weakening of the reformist camp in Iran. In the past 30 years, the Iranian government has always been less willing to listen and take seriously the concerns and worries of the people and their wishes, and has put these in the back burner, when it is been threatened from outside. The hardliners and other worse parts of the regime such as the security apparatus use these circumstances to seize and hold power.


Another consideration is that while the regime may not be very popular, it has the backing of many Iranians from nearly all segments of society. Toppling the regime may disenfranchise these folks and end the theocracy, but then a restoration of all inclusive democracy will bring them back to fold and having been the subject of foreign enmity, they may well become more popular and win major elections. In any case, no matter how much we may dislike them, we need to admit to ourselves that the religious conservatives will always be part of the political scene in a free Iran, since many Iranians are traditionalists and religiously conservative, just as religious traditionalists are part of the political scene and a force to be reckon with in the US, the Netherlands, and many other democratic societies.


Legitimate political change in Iran can only come from the people of Iran and through supporting the reformists and beating the hardliners who are supported by the revolutionary guards and other militant groups in elections rather than with sticks and stones or by bombing. This requires a lot of work in organizing, conscious raising and winning the hearts and minds of people. This is in part how the civil rights movement in the US succeeded.


Iran is a society in transition. It is an authoritarian and repressive society, but it also has democratic institutions which make reform possible. Iran is a young democracy and much work has to be done for it to transform into a mature and advanced democracy. We ought to remember how restrictive American democracy was in its inception and take the lesson that democratic reforms can only come from within and with much struggle. But change and reform in Iran require peace and stability. They will not come about unless the US ends its threats.


Iranian-American Identity and Regime Change


A violent regime change in Iran led by foreign forces is a murderous and terrible idea, yet it has many adherents among Iranian-Americans. The reasons for this are complex but they have everything to do with the way Iranian-Americans perceive themselves and in particular their American-ness in the wake of 9/11. Reader, just in case you have not noticed because you were not paying attention, the events following 9/11 were devastating and very disturbing for Iranian-Americans.


When President Bush put Iran in the axis of evil and closely connected Islam with 9/11 by saying things like 'they hate us because of our values', in doing so he made all Moslems and all Iranians into the enemies within. When many Americans and nearly the entire American media (particularly the comedians) embraced these moves, the pressure on the Iranian-Americans became enormous and impossible to resist. As a result most Iranian-Americans particularly those who had never developed any political values and principles of their own, because of fear and concerns for safety, embraced wholeheartedly the neoconservative agenda, their underlying assumptions about what is happening in the world, and their threat to shut up and go along if you know what is good for you, so that they can blend with the mass and not to stand out. This can best be described as asymmetrical aggregation under panic conditions.


Consequently in the aftermath of 9/11 Iranian-Americans in large numbers have embraced the idea of civilization war between Islam and the West, they have distant themselves from Islam or have left it completely and many consider it along with all Moslems (in particular Arabs) as evil, many have also started to embrace the pre-Islamic culture of Iran, the late Shah, and Monarchism which had been largely abandoned as a hopeless and losing cause by most Iranian-Americans before 9/11.


Bush's plea to American people after 9/11 to just mourn and not to be critical of American foreign policy and blame it in anyway for what happened, allowed him to define what had happened in 9/11 and to set the political agenda for how to respond to it. Then in a very loud and clear way Bush repeatedly told Americans and the world 'you are either with us or against us' bullying and intimidating people into submission to his will and supporting the war with Iraq and proving that authoritarian ways of government can exist side by side with democratic ways, if the contradictions between them are masked and overlooked. Bush like a tyrant was clearly signalling that there is no legitimate dissent when it comes to characterizing 9/11 and supporting the Iraq war.


What I found most strange and surprising was the way Iranian-Americans and particularly the Monarchists embraced these authoritarian ideas and ways of governing with ease. They suddenly found their form, i.e., going along with the powerful, mimicking those in authority, and policing those who do not go along. This was because many Iranian-Americans got their political mentality from living under an absolute and repressive monarchy and the only politics that ever existed under the horizon of monarchy was 'you are either with us or against us'. But democratic politics is about discussions and debates and listening to and taking seriously the concerns and worries of many different people from a variety of different backgrounds and blind loyalty and complete submission to those in authority has no place in it.


Possibly because many Iranian-Americans are actually Iranians in America whose language skills are too poor to seriously engage in democratic politics and handle and sieve through various political opinions, disagreements and differences, they have had little choice in embracing authoritarian dichotomies because it is the only kind of politics they can comprehend and get their head around. However, what was desperately needed at the time to resist these authoritarian overtures was a little critical thinking, some political consciousness rooted in the ideas of enlightenment and the courage to stand apart, risk disapproval, and not to cave into political bullying. Only those who knew other ways of acting, being and perceiving things and doing politics had the option of saying to the president and his administration 'I am neither with you or them and that respectfully, my ideas of what is best for the US are very different from yours,' breaking through the narrow options that they put on the table.


The regime change and enmity towards Islam are therefore psychological responses to fear and a kind of posture to ease the concern of our fellow Americans about who we are and what are our motives. They are forms of righteous indignation and those who defend them, often do so with a lot of venom. I know Iranian-Americans who identified themselves as Moslems and did not have any major problems with Mohammad the prophet of Islam before 9/11 but now the moment they hear the name of the prophet they loudly, quickly, and publicly, hurl the most vulgar profanities at him, just to let every one around them know what their new loyalties are and with whom they stand. I know some opportunistic and rootless Iranians-Americans who were sympathetic to the left and called themselves liberals before 9/11 but who took a 180 degree change in their social, political, and cultural views and situated themselves to the right of the most rightwing Americans such as Cheney, Rumsfeld and the Fox News. They are born again and they are wholly and completely shaped by 9/11 and the ugly, aggressive, and mean politics that emerged from it. They are virtually unrecognizable when compared to who they were before.


I also know some Iranian-Americans who took in Bush's suggestions about what is happening in the world not only on the political level but also on the religious level, treating the president Bush as a new Christ and a holy prophet ushering in new final truths about what we should believe and how we should perceive ourselves, others, and politics in general. Some of these people because they are so wishy-washy and fickle and always have their finger in the air would now claim that they hate Bush, not recognizing that they have not in any way lost the mindset that they took from him and that they are still in his grip, participating in his performance.


I know a few Iranian-American women who instantly became the victims of Islam after 9/11 and they began to recast any and all conflicts they have had with Iranian-American men in their family as originating in cultural difference and bad Islamic modes of being. This is because the war on Islam is really a war on Moslem men who are viewed as aggressive and mean but Iranian women are perceived as exotic victims and they can get a pass and be embraced by the majority culture in the US if they reinforce the negative perspectives on Islam and cast the men in their lives as evil and turn on them. Truly, one has to have a lot of self-worth and her own ways of finding worth and meaning in order not to succumb to bringing others down and to these self-serving invitations.


What has been most disconcerting is that the monarchists then proceeded to bring these authoritarian forms of thinking and intolerance for difference of opinion into the debates among Iranian-Americans about what is best for Iran, and what does it mean to be a good American. Some of them make it their business to crush different opinions and any sign of individuality in the Iranian-American community. They suspect that their own views may well be faulty and empty, they can not bear to look at them closely, and this makes them very cruel and unapproachable. The monarchists regularly and in many different forms label those who do not mirror their view as fundamentalists and as the servant of the regime and attack them most viscously and with no sympathy. Because there are so many of them and they are not committed to a civil debate about the issues, they manage to often create an unpleasant and mean spirited atmosphere which drives away those who think differently.   


Civility and Respect for Our Opponents


We Iranian-Americans must learn to respect each other and differences of opinions and we also need to remember and focus on our commonalities and not get carried away with our differences. Reader, I beg you to recall that nearly all expatriates no matter what political camps they come from reject the connecting of religion and politics, theocracy, political repression and brutality, the attack on free press, the Islamic dress codes and the crack down on those who do not pay enough attention to it, the mistreatment of Bahais, and the idea of a Supreme Leader and the Assembly of Experts. But we differ on how to bring about the needed changes. We all want what is best for Iran and we want to see Iran and Iranians to prosper and we want to see Iran become much more democratic, peaceful and stable. But we disagree on how to bring this about.


The Monarchists and the followers of Mujahedin who fought Iran along side Saddam Hussein want regime change. They think that they have legitimate grievances, so when they are confronted with their opponents, they want to use force. They want to get rid of those who rule Iran by using violence, but their views are clouded by the desire for revenge and hate. They both have great enmity towards the Islamic regime. The Monarchists had to leave in a hurry leaving behind their properties, possessions and their former social status. They are very hurt and they want restorations of their former lives. The Mujahedin participated in the revolution but they fell out with the Islamists and Khomeini and were declared to be the enemies of Islamic revolution after bombings which were linked to them. Some of them were murdered in cold blood and while they were under arrest. Others served long sentences and consequently many left Iran afraid for their lives and with the aim of changing the regime from outside. But fighting along side the enemies of Iran has made them very unpopular in Iran.


What is very interesting is that although the Monarchists and the Mujahedin see themselves as antithetical to the Islamic regime, they actually have a lot in common with them and they all embrace a number of pre-modern and backward political ideas. Just as the Islamists think of Khomeini as without any fault and worthy of veneration, the Monarchists deify the Shah and the Mujahedin do the same to Rajavi. But politics has to do with ideas and finding solutions to practical social problems, not personalities and cult-following. This cult following shows that even though the Monarchists and the Mujahedin may want to distance themselves from Islam as a religion and political Islam, they display the same religious instincts and thinking as the fundamentalists.


These instincts also manifest themselves in their attitudes towards their opponents and political differences. Islamists let the Monarchists leave Iran and they tried to get rid of the Mujahedin. They were not interested in the views of their opponents and saw them as enemies and worthless people who are going to hell. Both the Monarchists and the Mujahedin also paint with broad brushes and see themselves as the children of light and see their opponents as in the grip of darkness. When there is no civility and desire for peace, then people can only think of why they must hate their political opponents and their mind just can not access reasons for treating them with a certain amount of respect that is due to every human being.


But we need to learn to be tolerant of difference of opinions and perspectives and to treat the mullahs and their types not as enemies but as our opponents, restrict our enmity to their ideas and political views, and then engage these views, show why they are bad ideas, and beat them at the polls. It is up to us, not to the US. The Monarchists and the Mujahedin seem to think that politics is about sitting in front of mirror and agreeing with yourself. But politics is about debating and discussing the concerns and worries of all the parties involved and hashing out a compromise. This is so even when those who we disagree with have a completely different social, political and cultural background than us and appear very different and even in some way threatening and weird. Politics without discussions and debates between various groups and listening to them is not politics; it is certainly not democratic politics. We also need to be realistic and acknowledge that the clerical regime is here to stay and it is not about to go away. Any change in Iran is going come from within and in this context. But who knows just how far the reforms can go, once they begin in earnest.


The Emerging Generation Gap


One of the problems with seeing one's Iranian-American identity in terms of distancing ourselves from Iran and Islam is that it does not work very well, it is often ineffective, and it is not convincing. No matter how much you distant yourself from them, you will be seen as one of them and belonging to them, especially when there is conflict and others are thinking badly of you. Moreover think of the psychological and moral damage that denying who you are in order to melt in with others can do to you in the long run, i.e., loss of personal identity and authenticity, and the surrender of personhood.


A better strategy may be not to demonize Iran and Islam but to defend them as not being entirely evil. It should not be difficult to see that this does not mean embracing the regime or Islam. We are likely to be treated better by Americans and feel better about ourselves, if the idea of a civilization war between Islam and the West gives way to a dialogue, exchange, or compromise between civilizations, if the US and Iran have better relations, and there is peace between Israel and the Palestinians. This road is of course much more difficult and challenging than blind submission to the views of the powerful which is too easy. It is about changing the world rather than lazily asking others to do the work for us. We must ask what does this demand of me and learn to make great demands of ourselves, instead of passing the buck and shifting responsibility. We must get involved rather than just be spectators.


I think that with the election of Obama, in this context a new generation gap is starting to emerge between older Iranian-Americans who favour regime change and demonizing the regime and Islam and younger Iranian-Americans who want normalizing diplomatic relations with Iran and removing the sanctions. I am with the latter group who are less angry and more open-minded than their parents.

... Payvand News - 04/30/09 ... --

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