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Iranian Democracy: What We Can Do From Here (Part 1)

July 2, 2009

Guest Blogger Donovan Schaefer continues his commentary on the recent events in Iran.


Obviously, in North America, we have all of us been shocked by the horrors perpetrated by the ruling regime this past week. There is nothing we can do today, but in the long run, we have the option to change our own countries and in the process perhaps set the stage for a freer Iran in the coming years. This is what I think each one of us can take responsibility for:

1) Understand how different parts of the world perceive us; put yourself in their perspective. I think in the west we assume that we are good people. When our leaders do foolish things that damage our international reputation we do not identify with their actions and so don’t attach the blame to ourselves. Furthermore, the actions of the past, of previous generations, seem distant; they don’t seem to stick to us.

The rest of the world does not see things this way. America in Iran and throughout much of the Middle East is not yet known for the 5 months of the Obama presidency, in which, so far, a measured and intelligent foreign policy has ruled the day. It is known for the CIA’s overthrow of Iranian prime minister Mossadeq in 1953, ushering in the reign of the Shah. In the US we debate whether the invasion of Iraq was “worth it,” weighing cost and troop deaths against outcomes. In the Middle East the discussion is about the million or so civilian deaths estimated to have been caused in the aftermath of the invasion; the interpretation that it was “worth it” is always an uphill climb. They remember the lies about WMD. They remember Abu Ghraib. In the US we distance ourselves from Bush’s “Axis of Evil” speech as a slip of the tongue or dimwitted gaffe by a now disgraced former leader. But many Iranians are still reeling from that label. They remember the US’s almost unconditional support of Israel over the past few decades as it committed countless atrocities as well as everyday petty humiliations against the Palestinians.

The US has no moral standing in the Middle East. We never had the moral prerogative to go to war in Iraq, and we will probably never have the moral prerogative to start a war again. Failure to see this collapse of moral prerogative was partly what led us into war with Iraq, and it is this same failure that motivates accusations from the right that Obama is “disrespecting America’s accomplishments” by speaking truthfully about its past crimes and failings.

2) Because of this, we also need to accept that sometimes our help is not welcome. Neocons and their mouthpiece John McCain are pressuring Obama to respond “more aggressively” to the situation in Iran. The logistical problem of having no military capacity aside, this line presupposes that American intervention would be welcomed in Iran. It would be welcomed no more than we would have welcomed Venezuelan military intervention in Florida after the 2000 election. Over and over again Republican and Democratic hawks quote Burke’s maxim that “All that is needed for evil to succeed is for good men to say nothing.” We need to refocus the conversation and the range of the terms of debate. Saying nothing may not be what we want to do, but sometimes it is our only choice. The rest of the world has gotten used to the feeling of having neither the power nor the stature to influence what happens halfway across the globe.

3) Keep our governments off the track of the politics of fear. Iran up until 2005 had been on a reformist trajectory. The reform candidate Mohammad Khatami had been elected and re-elected in the previous two elections.

What changed? George W. Bush. In labeling Iran a member of the “Axis of Evil” and then invading Iraq, Bush sent a message that any country that did not accommodate US demands would be vulnerable to a bloody and inept military strike. Just as Bush justified his 2003 invasion of Iraq and won re-election in 2004 based on fear, Ahmedinejad ran on a platform of “security”: tough talk, nationalism, aggressive foreign policy, militarization over economic development. Bush and the “muscular” foreign policy he ushered in delivered Ahmedinejad to the Iranian people, and now with his foot in the door he’s refusing to leave–even though the Iranian people want him out.

We need to make sure that we don’t succumb to fearmongering and epic calls to war ever again. Obama understands this and is trying hard to build a new style of politics and foreign policy that evades the trap of fear. We need to watch him and make sure that he stays this course, at the same time as we work to keep the pressure to do otherwise off his back.

Tune in tomorrow for the remainder of Donovan’s commentary.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Jonathan permalink
    July 2, 2009 11:29 am

    I’m enjoying these.

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