Our colleague, Seyed Mohammad Marandi of the University of Tehran, has prepared another sharply insightful essay, “The American Misreading of Iran and the Changing Reality of the Middle East”. We chose to juxtapose Mohammad’s essay with the recent Foreign Affairs cover displayed above, both because the “Why No One Saw It Coming” headline is so powerfully contradicted by Mohammad’s essay and because Foreign Affairs has so frequently been a forum for “American misreading” of Iran and the Middle East of the sort that Mohammad so aptly critiques. We are grateful to Mohammad for sharing his essay with us, and are pleased to publish it below:
THE AMERICAN MISREADING OF IRAN AND THE CHANGING REALITY OF THE MIDDLE EAST
by Seyed Mohammad Marandi, University of Tehran
It is clear that the United States and its Western European allies were caught completely unprepared for the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Bahrain, as well as the upheavals throughout the Arab world. On the other hand, many of us in the region have been repeatedly and explicitly stating for quite a while now, in meetings, seminars, and papers that the center cannot hold and that these pro-Western and corrupt regimes are sliding toward collapse; see, for example, here.
Why is it that most Western analysts have been unable to foresee these events? More broadly, why is there such a long history in the United States and parts of Europe of misreading and misrepresenting the situation in the Middle East? Part of the answer lies in a hypocritical approach to the region, which gives Western policymakers no incentive to understand Middle Eastern realities. Another important factor is over-reliance on bad sources of information about this part of the world—sources who are hardly representative of or “in touch” with Middle Eastern societies.
A Challenged Superpower
Hypocrisy has been on ample display in the Obama Administration’s response to recent developments in the Arab world. Take, for example, President Obama’s somewhat strange Nowruz message to the Iranian people this year, see here, issued on March 20, 2011. In the message, Obama repeatedly attacked Iran for alleged human rights violations, telling the Iranian people “though times may seem dark, I want you to know that I am with you.” He said this, however, as Iranians were watching the horrific scenes in Bahrain unfold live on their television screens. In his message, Obama also said that “the same forces that swept across Tahrir Square were seen in Azadi Square in June of 2009”. For many Iranians, such a statement was especially hypocritical in the wake of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s remarks, see here, in Cairo five days earlier, offered in response to a reporter’s question about Bahrain:
“Well, we call for calm and restraint on all sides in Bahrain. We’re particularly concerned about increasing reports of provocative acts and sectarian violence by all groups. The use of force and violence from any source will only worsen the situation and create a much more difficult environment in which to arrive at a political solution.
So our advice to all sides is that they must take steps now to negotiate toward a political resolution. The security issues are obviously important because there has to be an environment of stability and security in order for these talks to proceed. But it is important that everyone abide by that. And we know that the Government of Bahrain requested assistance from their fellow members in the Gulf Cooperation Council. We regret that the dialogue that was attempted had not started, and we call on all sides immediately to begin that dialogue and to look for ways to compromise to arrive at a peaceful resolution.”
Effectively, Clinton drew a moral equivalency between Bahrain’s ruling Al-Khalifa family and its battered population. The “provocative acts and sectarian violence” that she spoke of were initially carried out by foreign mercenaries who were given Bahraini citizenship by the ruling family. Since the subsequent Saudi-led occupation of the country, many more Bahraini civilians have been murdered while hundreds more have been imprisoned, tortured, raped, or have gone missing, see, for example, here. With her statement that “security issues are obviously important”, she not only attempted to legitimize the regime’s actions, but also to put the peaceful protestors on the defensive.
In response to another question, Clinton refused to criticize the Saudi-led occupation and even attempted to legitimize it:
“Question: I just wanted to follow up on Bahrain. And I understand that you spoke with the Saudi foreign minister just a little while ago. And I’m wondering exactly what you could tell us about that conversation. Presumably, you made the same kind of appeals for calm and restraint as you just did here. But what was his response? Are you at all disappointed that the Saudis, the UAE, and others are going in to Bahrain?
Secretary Clinton: Well, I’m not going to characterize their actions. Under their agreements among themselves in the Gulf, they have the right to ask for that assistance, and that’s what the Government of Bahrain has done. But I said the very same thing to the foreign minister of Saudi Arabia that I just said now. I said that the security challenges cannot be a substitute for a political resolution. And as they are moving in to respond to the requests by the Government of Bahrain, they, along with everyone else, needs to be promoting the dialogue between the parties. And we have a senior State Department official there, Assistant Secretary Jeff Feltman, who is working with the parties as we speak, because we believe strongly that you can’t solve this problem by just trying to bring security to bear; you have to have a political solution.”
On paper, though, the agreements among Arab regimes in the Persian Gulf are supposed to be about mutual protection against external threats, not an accord to crush local populations. Even if such provisions existed in the agreements, the U.S. Secretary of State is not in a position to legitimize them.
In his May 19, 2011 speech on America’s Middle East policy, see here, President Obama effectively added his own endorsement of the legitimacy of the Al Khalifa dictatorship and its supposed “legitimate interest in the rule of law”. When referring to Syria—where, despite the obvious shortcomings of the current political order, the government has significantly more popular support, see here, than the Bahraini regime, the U.S. President says of President Assad that “he can lead that transition, or get out of the way”. However, when speaking about Bahrain, Obama makes no such demand of the Al Khalifa dictatorship. Moreover, he is completely silent about the most oppressive and reactionary regime in the region, Saudi Arabia. Indeed, Obama had the audacity to blame Iran for Bahrain’s troubles—claiming it “has tried to take advantage of the turmoil there”—while saying nothing about Saudi Arabia’s armed occupation of the country. Furthermore, it must be disturbing for the people of Bahrain to hear the U.S. President subtly portray them as a minority group in their own country:
“Coptic Christians must have the right to worship freely in Cairo, just as Shia must never have their mosques destroyed in Bahrain. What is true for religious minorities is also true when it comes to the rights of women…”
As a consequence of their failure to predict the events in North Africa, the United States and other Western powers were forced to constantly change their political stances regarding events during the days of Revolution—and looked particularly weak, unwise and insincere when doing so. Western states’ difficulties in understanding the Middle East are exacerbated because their sources of information in this part of the world are basically the secular elite, the wealthy, and Western-educated or even Western-oriented Muslim intellectuals.
Whether these sources are opponents, critics, or proponents of the established political order really does not make much of a difference. The point is that these people are simply not representative of their societies. They may be representative of parts of these societies, but those parts do not constitute anything near the majority. Obama himself seems to have recognized this in his May 19 speech when he said, “We must also build on our efforts to broaden our engagement beyond elites”. This is why the Western political establishment, the Western media, and most Western experts did not understand the situation in Egypt or anticipate the coming revolution there. It is also why they did not understand the underlying popularity of the Islamic Republic of Iran among Iranians.
Western analysts could not come to terms with President Ahmadinejad’s landslide victory in the 2009 presidential election nor could they understand why the Tehran protests and riots soon fizzled out. Their problem is that they do not realize that those who support the Islamic Republic, whether supporters, critics, or opponents of the Iranian President, are largely of the same social background as the bulk of those in Tahrir Square. Such people did not study in private schools, nor do they spend their summers in western countries or dreaming about living in western countries. And, for the most part, they did not vote as the Western media and Western-oriented Iranians expected them to.
The Wikileaks cables strongly support the argument that Western countries—especially the United States—form their analyses of Iranian politics through interaction with “elites”. It seems that a disproportionate amount of the U.S. Government’s information about Iran comes from English-speaking Iranians who, oftentimes, are living in the West. One of the Wikileaks cables—09LONDON1423, see here, which reports on the activities of a London-based Iranian opposition group surrounding the Islamic Republic’s June 12, 2009 presidential election—is a good example:
“The feverish atmosphere in XXXXXXXXXXXX’s London office XXXXXXXXXXXX was that of a political campaign office late on election night. The lightly-orchestrated chaos included XXXXXXXXXXXX rushing between simultaneous meetings in different rooms and on different phone lines with callers and delegations from Arabic, Farsi, and U.S. media and activists while his small staff monitored Iran video and websites and fielded a deluge of phone calls from Iran and elsewhere. Poloff was able for the most part to stay out of sight. By way of flagging his own role in shaping public opinion in Iran and various Arab countries, XXXXXXXXXXXX listed for Poloff the Arab, French, UK and U.S. media for whom XXXXXXXXXXXX said he has been doing XXXXXXXXXXXX daily for the past week in addition to his usual XXXXXXXXXXXX– XXXXXXXXXXXX.”
The idea that an Iranian opposition group based in London and operating with foreign funding could actually play a significant “role in shaping public opinion in Iran and various Arab countries” should be readily seen as absurd. But many of the Wikileaks cables show how American officials constantly attempt to understand Iranian politics and public opinion through precisely such sources, see, for example, here. One of the more ridiculous cables, from the American consulate in Istanbul in August 2009, see here, reporting on the imminent demise of Ayatollah Khamenei, highlights some of the problems with this approach.
Contrary to claims made by Obama and much of the political establishment in the United States, most Iranians viewed American attempts to support the riots in Tehran as an effort by outsiders to thwart democracy and impose their will upon the Iranian people. While American and European officials claim otherwise, the fact that U.S. and EU policy has been to make the Iranian population suffer through sanctions—something that is also confirmed by the Wikileaks cables, see, for example, here—strengthens Iranians’ belief that the United States is seeking to impose its will on them.
Whether the United States was really trying to undermine Iranian democracy and bring down the Islamic Republic or whether U.S. officials and the media simply put too much faith in their “elite” sources is something that will become clearer in the future. Nevertheless, what is clear is that most of the so-called Iran experts who influence U.S. government policy towards Iran, know relatively little about the country; many of them are agenda-driven and basically say what people in positions of power want to hear.
The bulk of Iranian voters, regardless of whom they voted for, accepted the election results as valid as there was no real evidence of fraud; see, for example, here, here and here. More importantly, though, they supported the political order and constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran. One of the reasons why the political order and Ayatollah Khamenei are popular among ordinary Iranians is because of the ideologically-grounded stress on moral values, social justice, independence, and support for the oppressed, as well as the defense of national dignity—as, for example, with regard to the nuclear program. The leadership of the Islamic Republic of Iran is not seen to be concerned about being perceived in the west as “rabble rousers”; it also cares little for the disdain of the wealthy, pro-Western secular elite which looks down upon the “masses”.
The New Politics of the Middle East
This sort of political stance is something that we will almost certainly see more of throughout the region in the years to come. In the future, successful politicians throughout the Middle East and North Africa will be those calling for upholding moral values, independence, dignity, social justice, and meaningful support for the Palestinian people. This will constitute a major shift in the way politics is done in the region. It is a way of thinking very much linked to much of the mainstream Islamic world view; we are definitely not in a post-Islamic age. From the American side, the harsh rhetoric used by President Obama against Iran in his May 19 speech seems to reflect a sense of fear or desperation in the White House about the direction being taken by the populations of the region.
These enormous changes have major implications for the Islamic Republic of Iran. Whether the U.S. political establishment or EU governments like it or not, the Islamic Republic feels increasingly empowered, confident, and influential as a result of recent developments. It is not anticipating other countries to follow its model or political system; rather, it is expecting a paradigm shift in regional politics away from western domination.
This is a central point. Contrary to what is often stated in Western think tanks and academic centers close to the political establishment, to say that the Iranians are pleased with what is going on in the region is an understatement. They believe that almost all the countries of the region are all controlled by Western-backed corrupt and despotic regimes that do not reflect the will of their own population or the people in the region at large. From this perspective, almost any change in the region is good for Iran.
More broadly, the current upheavals constitute a second wave in the shifting balance of power in the Middle East which involves both Iran and the United States. The first wave began soon after the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, when the United States judged that Iran and its allies had been left in a very weak position. However, as American troubles rapidly increased in these two countries and as Israel suffered a humiliating defeat in the 2006 war with Hezbollah and failed to achieve any of its goals in the 2008 attack on Gaza (despite committing enormous atrocities in both wars), the situation began to change.
In fact, many internal critics of Iran’s foreign policy now believe that the country’s posture of resistance, which also includes its steadfast position regarding its nuclear program, has been vindicated. It is widely believed that this culture of resistance has contributed to the current uprisings and the second wave of change that we are now witnessing. It is also believed that the same culture of resistance has made Iran popular in Arab public opinion. This reality runs in conflict with widely accepted conventional wisdom in the West. According to the Wikileaks cables, see here, the Saudi King frequently called on the United States to attack Iran—more specifically, to “cut off the head of the snake”—in order to put an end to its nuclear program. Similarly, the Bahraini dictator, Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, see here,
“pointed to Iran as the source of much of the trouble in both Iraq and Afghanistan. He argued forcefully for taking action to terminate their nuclear program, by whatever means necessary. ‘That program must be stopped,’ he said. ‘The danger of letting it go on is greater than the danger of stopping it’.”
As a result of these and similar passages in the Wikileaks cables, many Americans have come to the bizarre conclusion, see here, that the Wikileaks documents prove
“that the United States and Israel are not the only two actors in the international community concerned with Iran’s nuclear program and Tehran’s foreign policy behavior. Arabs are just as aware of the Iranian ‘boogeyman’ as the Americans and Israelis, which should give Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Barack Obama a relatively short sigh of relief.”
But here, again, Western officials and analysts as well as much of the Western media confuse the views of the pro-Western elite in the Middle East and North Africa with Arab public opinion which strongly supports Iran. As in the case of Iran, these elites and broader public opinion are regularly opposed to one another.
In 2003 the United States felt that it had isolated Iran. However, within a few years Iran’s regional position was enhanced dramatically. Whereas in the past Afghanistan and Iraq were controlled by regimes hostile toward Tehran, both countries established close ties to the Islamic Republic. Additionally, the coming to power of the Justice and Development Party in Turkey in 2002 has also completely changed the nature of Iranian-Turkish relations.
The recent second wave of change has further strengthened the position of Iran at the expense of the United States. The fall of Mubarak in Egypt has enormous implications for Palestinians. The Islamic Republic is no longer a lone voice with what it views as its principled support for the rights of Palestinians. The Turkish government’s strong criticism of the Israeli regime’s policies has, of course, had a major role in breaking this isolation. But the Egyptian Revolution takes this dynamic to a completely new level. Egypt borders Gaza and the new political order in Egypt will no longer accept the suffering imposed on the civilian population of Gaza by the EU, the United States, and Israel. Egyptians will not accept the humiliation imposed upon them and the Palestinians in the past, and Iran can no longer be singled out by its Western antagonists for supporting resistance movements. In the eyes of Iranians, a strong and independent Egypt will simply increase the pressure on Israel and its Western allies.
This wave of change will also force the Jordanian regime and the Palestinian Authority to change their highly unpopular policies regarding Palestine. Any further sign of appeasement towards Israel and its Western allies will only further anger and strengthen the forces for change and revolution.
Faced with these realities, some Westerners retort that the Islamic Republic’s strategic position would be badly damaged by the collapse of the Assad government in Syria. On this issue, two points should be made. First, Tehran believes that Syria is in a stronger position than other Arab regimes, to a significant degree because of its traditional support for Hezbollah and the Palestinian movements. Second, any fundamental change in the Syrian political order will increase instability in Jordan and possibly quicken the collapse of the Jordanian regime, effectively surrounding both the Israeli regime and Saudi Arabia. The hypothetical fall of the Syrian political order will not, in the long run, be good news for the Saudis—or even for the Turks, for that matter, who are concerned about their own Kurdish and Alawite populations as well as strong Salafi trends within the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood.
It is ironic that only a few years ago, it was said that Iran was surrounded by hostile forces; now, it is Saudi Arabia that feels increasingly encircled. Iran is no longer the only country with which the Saudis have problems: Jordan is unstable; Iranians, Iraqis, and Bahrainis are outraged because of the U.S.-backed Saudi move to crush the Bahraini people; the Egyptian people are angry because of Saudi attempts to thwart their revolution, and the opposition to the regime in Yemen will remember Saudi (and American) support for Ali Abdullah Saleh and General Ali Mohsen. The Houthis in northern Yemen, especially, will remember the extensive bombing of civilian targets in their cities and villages by Saudi forces less than two years ago and the Salafis of the south have no great love for the Saudi ruling family (or the United States) either. Whatever happens in Yemen, it seems that the role of the future central government has been severely weakened, thus enhancing the influence of these groups. The Saudi royal family and its ailing king are growing more isolated and potentially unstable, while Iran has successfully established strong ties with almost all of its important neighbors and its ties with regional and global powers are also rapidly evolving. Hence, Iranians feel that, regardless of the situation in Syria, the current upheavals are a big plus for the region.
Already the new Egyptian foreign minister is looking to normalize ties with Iran and has said that his country would also like to turn over a new leaf with respect to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Iran’s relations with Tunisia have already begun to evolve. Countries like India, China, and even Russia have already shown that they recognize the implications of change in the region; this has been reflected in their communications and negotiations with the Iranians over the past few weeks. Even Argentina feels the need to take steps towards normalizing ties with Iran, despite enormous pressure from Israel and, more importantly, the United States.
The West’s inconsistent, confused, and unprincipled response to the uprisings in the Arab world has weakened the U.S. status in the region. On this point, the popular reaction in many parts of the world, including the Middle East, to the Western air strikes on Libya is revealing. America’s open support for the crushing of the Bahraini uprising has infuriated many, especially ordinary Iraqis as well as Iranians. The U.S. President has discredited himself completely after his Secretary of State’s statement that the Bahraini regime’s move to crush the Bahraini people through Saudi, UAE, and Kuwaiti forces is legitimate. It is believed that well over thirty Bahrainis have already been murdered. If one compares the population of this small country to that of the United States, it is as if 20,000 Americans had been killed by a ruling family and a foreign occupation force.
Against this backdrop, Iranians believe that, as a result of the Islamic and Arab awakening, the balance of power is tilting even further away from the United States. They also believe the United States is experiencing long-term economic decline and that this will significantly strengthen Iran’s position as well as that of other countries and actors critical of current U.S. and EU policies.
Of course, while Egypt, Hezbollah, Turkey, and Hamas all seem to gain from the winds of change along with Iran, it is quite possible that Al-Qa’ida-like forces will also make their own gains if Western countries fail to learn from past mistakes and continue imposing their will on the people of the region. In this regard, the current Western alliance with the Saudis strengthens the export of Taliban ideology, and there is little doubt that continued Western support for such regimes will have bitter consequences. Contrary to Obama’s claim that “we have broken the Taliban’s momentum”, it is widely believed in the region that the death of Osama bin Laden is being used to divert attention from the fact that the United States has failed in Afghanistan and Pakistan and that it will soon begin withdrawing its forces. Such a defeat will have long term negative implications for the United States and its allies.
Many Iranians feel that time is on their side and that there is little need for the country to negotiate with or even talk to a hostile American government. Over the years, so-called Iran experts in the United States have made many ludicrous predictions about the overthrow of the Islamic Republic of Iran. In the months and years ahead, these incurably confident triumphalists will, no doubt, continue to caricature Iran and see imminent signs of revolution in the slightest flicker of militancy. As long as the U.S. government relies on such advice, Iranians will continue to feel that talking to Americans is pointless and a waste of time.