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Iranian Democracy: What We Can Do From Here (Part 2)

July 3, 2009

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

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4) Work to unravel the Israel-Palestine conflict. Political anatomists have determined that the Iran bone is, in fact, connected to the Israel bone. The plight of the Palestinians and Israel’s expansionist policy (developing settlements in Gaza and the West Bank, for example) are used as a rallying cry by hardliners inside Iran to justify repressive tactics and militarization–just as Bush did to us in the 2000s. Encouraging Israel to withdraw from its occupied territories will take a powerful weapon out of Ahmedinejad’s hands.

In addition to pressing Israel, this also means seriously questioning the fitness of groups like Hamas to lead. That doesn’t mean that the 2007 Palestinian elections should be rejected (they should be honored), but that we need to be honest about the severe limitation of a political strategy that will yield only perpetual military engagement: refusal to recognize Israel’s right to exist. Israelis and Palestinians alike are scared–and justifiably so. But the politics of fear won’t solve anyone’s problems. We need to find ways to de-escalate the situation, to loosen the rigid grip that these two groups have on each other’s throats. That doesn’t mean backing either one of them into a corner. This was the constant failing of the Bush policy in the Middle East: assuming that force and tough talk would yield results. People who feel scared and vulnerable don’t respond to bullying. Threats don’t work when you feel like you have nothing left to lose.

5) Spread the message that the Iranian people are now being held hostage by their government. I think Americans let themselves forget this during the years of the Iraq invasion. We allowed ourselves to forget that Iraqis were not crazy desert people (probably with scimitars). As Roger Cohen argued in a Saturday op-ed piece , one of the benefits of the Iranian coup has been “to awaken Americans to the civic vitality of Iranian society — a real country with real people rather than a bunch of zealous clerics posing a nuclear problem.” This is what we need to keep in front of us at all times, not because it will motivate us to “act,” but because it will remind us to think twice before we gamble with their lives as we did in Iraq. Jon Stewart’s series on Iran last week has been a great example of this.

This also means taking apart popular prejudice and ignorance about Islam. Islam does not determine politics. It is, like all religions, a facet of political subjectivity. But just as Christianity or Buddhism can contain a wide range of political options (from war-mongering evangelicals to pro-gay marriage Catholics, from self-immolating pacifists to fascist Japanese imperialists), Islam has different political implications for different individuals. In Iran right now, Muslims are using their religious identity as a basis on which to demand freedom from a corrupt and dangerous regime. They shout allah o akbar from rooftops to express solidarity. They invoke the Qu’ranic injunction to rule justly to criticize the government. They begin their correspondence with “In the name of God the most merciful and compassionate.” Islam can be used to justify and bolster oppression; in the west, popular stereotypes, media representations, and plain ignorance have obscured how it can also be used to organize and liberate.

6) The left-wing alternative media need to stop cheering for any world leader who has the guts to stand up to the US. This includes Hugo Chavez and all the old communist leaders. Criticizing American foreign policy is easy. So easy, in fact, that many rulers are using it to distract their citizens from their own iron-fisted foreign policy. Ahmedinejad is not a hero or a “man of the people.” Buying his manufactured mythology is as foolish as believing that Bush was a “compassionate conservative.”

7) As Thomas Friedman has argued many times over the past few years, we need to change the way that energy affects the global economy. The fact that democracy has not flourished in most areas of the Middle East has very little to do with religion or culture and everything to do with oil. (Friedman points out that oil-poor Lebanon is one of the longest-standing democracies in the region, other than Israel–also oil-poor.) I don’t quite understand the economics of this, but I would guess that oil is so valuable a commodity that it inevitably begins to concentrate wealth in the hands of a very small minority of the population–and eventually this minority will merge with the government. (Think about how Russia expropriated Yukos from private hands over the past decade.)

Ahmedinejad used oil wealth to fatten the state’s security apparatus–the same apparatus that he turned on the Iranian people in the past two weeks. Friedman recommends a security tax of $1 per gallon on all gasoline, with rebates for the poverty line. This is exactly the right direction. At the very least, we need to make sure that we support oil-independence initiatives not just for the implications for the environment or for foreign policy, but to weaken regimes that are terrorizing their people.

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