In recent days, with more immediate and practical concerns over a possible “Grexit” and Spain’s floundering banks, Iran may have slipped out of the global media spotlight for a while.
Just as fickle – and oftentimes cruel – as the media spotlight, is the expedient and capricious nature of global power interests and foreign policy-making, made painfully apparent as in Iran. Nowhere else has America’s supposedly benign and benevolent foreign policy been so brutally exposed. Above all, it has failed miserably, unless some Machiavellian machination of creating a convenient bogeyman has secretly been the goal of American foreign policy in the Middle East all along.
First things first - it is not a push to say that the Americans had a hand in creating the Islamic Republic. The call for democracy against an autocratic and repressive regime in Iran may be a genuine plea, but one also cannot selectively ignore facts and history. It has been the Americans that propped up the highly unpopular and increasingly autocratic Reza Pahlavi, Shah-an-Shah, King of Kings (a hardly democratic title) against his democratically-elected premier Mohamed Mossadegh in a blatant coup, Operation Ajax, during the tumultuous days of the Cold War. Perhaps then we should not be so surprised that the populist backlash came in the form of Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution.
Further along the timeline, which most of the developed world and its policy-makers have conveniently forgotten, there is the horrific Iran-Iraq war, where the Americans, along with other major Western powers, backed Iraq – the aggressor.
In more recent years, most have also forgotten the US-led invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq with no clear mandate from the rest of the international community, and, in the latter, on false claims.
It is perhaps only reasonable that Iran would feel threatened - the encirclement of Iran by American military interests in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Naval Fifth Fleet in the Persian Gulf at Bahrain, and the close proximity of nuclear-armed Israel is enough to make anyone jittery. Why should we then feign surprise, misunderstanding, or even outrage when Iranians start to think, ‘we’re next’, and start taking precautionary measures? As an old Chinese strategist, Wu Zi mused, even animals when cornered will fight savagely – how much more still will man?
The recent tightening of international sanctions, besides forcing Iran further into a corner, would also have hurt ordinary Iranians the most, while authoritarian regimes and their cronies more often than not have comfortable nest eggs carefully squirreled away.
Intervention may also not always be the best solution - NATO’s opportunistic adventure in Libya which ousted Gaddafi, who has been the most progressive and reform-minded of the so-called ‘rogue states’, has merely forced others to adopt a hardline approach – it may be just speculation, but Syria’s Assad no doubt realised he had no other way out than a brutal crackdown and a further shift towards countries of similar ilk, who are willing to look the other way. It comes as perhaps no surprise that Syria, Iran and Syrian-proxy Lebanon are now best friends in the Middle East. This demonisation by sanctions or direct intervention certainly does nobody any favours, not least the people living under such regimes, besides de-stabilising the Middle East even more and affecting innocent trade partners.
One cannot approach the Iranian issue without understanding the historical backdrop and local geopolitics – everything happens within a context, as sociologists have always stated. While politicians may come and go, and the priorities and whims of foreign policy may prove fickle, the people often have longer memories than that. The American public may not understand Eye-ran, but most Iranians still do remember the Americans.
One thing that has struck me while travelling in these states with authoritarian regimes and less-than-sterling human rights records is that their people are often able to draw a clear distinction between the government-of-the-day and the people – just as they hate their own oppressive governments, they expressly dislike the American government for its hypocrisy, and still the few Americans travelling in Iran after dark are often unable to get home – often they are accosted in the streets and invited back to someone’s house for dinner.
Whereas, most of us may have failed to see the difference between the Iranian government, and the Iranian people, and maybe this is why chanting the perennially popular foreign policy mantra of ‘engagement’ has not been as successful as if it had been done with a better understanding of historical contexts and the genuine grievances and needs of the local populace. After all, if we are indeed sincere about democracy, basic liberties and human rights, any real change has to come from within, and not as the collateral by-product of fickle superpower interests and power-plays.
In short, we have to balance between respecting the genuine security concerns of Iran, the fact that the cleric-led government has a poor rights record and is autocratic, and the fact that most Iranians do not quite see eye to eye with their government and yet suffer the most from isolationist policies and sanctions imposed by the US-led international community. Nobody said it was going to be easy task, but it at least represents a more genuine attempt at engagement, as opposed to the current trajectory we are on, which only portends war.