The problem with any omnipotent being is that eventually Toto will pull open the curtain. What lies behind? Our fallible, feeble selves.
Thus is the problem facing the most controversial pantless men on the planet–and I don’t mean those tribes in the Amazon. Of course it is the all-powerful clerics that run the Islamic Republic of Iran, a 30 year floorshow that’s part Puritan witch hunt, part swap meet, and all problems for the United States, Israel, and just about any other country wear their leaders wear pants (or not, as in the Gulf emirates).
Yet turbans are getting hotter. Controversy is sweeping Iran over the recent presidential elections, where hard-line incumbent Mahmoud Ahmedinejad claimed a 68% victory over former prime minister Mir Hossain Mousavi, bucking recent polls showing Mousavi ahead. Protests–in open defiance of the authorities–continue unabated in cities across the country. Allegations of election fraud run rampant. The Guardian Council, the clerics that must approve of the election results, are even okaying the recount of ballots at selected poll sites.
What makes this election more remarkable is that for possibly the first time, the mullahs must publicly pay lip service to popular dissent. This doesn’t mean there weren’t opposition movements before–the Khatami era of the 1990s comes to mind–yet those were mostly college kids. Give them free food and a Hacky Sack and all opposition is suppressed. Today’s opposition is made up of rank-and-file middle class Iranians: the same middle class that was crucial to the 1979 revolution that placed the mullahs in power in the first place.
Sally Buzbee’s article for the Associated Press highlights some of the scenarios that may happen, especially the fate of the Islamic regime. While I don’t think the Islamic republic will tumble any time soon, this kind of open defiance, even in the face of government censure, must really put the clerics on edge.
Why, you may ask? A little history is in order…we are devoted to history at the Neighborhood, after all.
In 1979, a coalition of radical leftists, trade unions, Communists, and Islamic fundamentalists succeeded in overthrowing the Shah, the autocratic, yet pro-Western, monarch of Iran. The shah, to be fair, was a prick of the worst order. His Savak, or secret police, committed atrocities that make the Gestapo look like traffic cops. He squashed all opposition to his rule, while plundering the wealth of the country for his lavish–and tasteless–lifestyle. It’s the same charge leveled at Saddam: is it some sort of requirement that Middle Eastern autocrats have to decorate their palaces like Tony Montana’s country home in Boca Raton?
Anyway, the coalition managed to get rid of the Shah. Great, now what? The Communists and trade unions didn’t have much of an answer, especially since their comrades up in Moscow were kind of busy in a little burg called Afghanistan. The clerics, unfortunately, did–a return to normalcy and stability. It’s ideas most people weary of turmoil and unrest would find refreshing and comforting. The rural poor yearned for a return to the rhythms of their daily lives, while urban voters in Tehran and elsewhere just wanted to go back to work.
What no one told the people was that normalcy and stability meant to the year 1300 under a strict–and not entirely accurate–interpretation of Islamic law. The fundamentalists gain power in a national referendum with an overwhelming majority based on their stability message. The Communists and trade unions were sidelined and persecuted, regardless of their role in the revolution. It’s probably one of the few times I feel bad for Communists, but they deserve sympathy. They’re usually the ones that throw coalition partners under a bus, so it hardly seems fair.
Thus is established the Islamic “Republic” of Iran–a democracy in theory, a republic in form and function, but a theocracy in reality. Even though there are elections, elected officials and a parliamentary process for legislation, the clerics have all real power. They approve the candidates, set the agenda, approve the laws, okay election results and basically use the elected legislature as a puppet for their program–a country under Islamic law.
The mullahs keep strict control over almost all aspects of everyday life. Most Western products, media and ideas are banned. Islamic dress codes and social morays are tightly watched. Women, religious minorities, atheists, dissenters and non-heterosexuals have none of the freedoms we enjoy. Religious police and paramilitary thugs maintain a terroristic iron fist over Iranian life. Public floggings are commonplace. Capital punishment is used often, especially stoning for women.
Thirty years have passed, and Iran has seen a lot. It has been through international isolation led by the United States. It suffered a nearly-decade long war with Iraq. It has been instrumental in Islamic uprisings in Lebanon, Syria, the Gulf States, Egypt, and in the occupied territories of Gaza and the West Bank. Yet it has rarely seen a crisis like the one unfolding now.
In many respects, the clerics should have seen this coming. While they sat on their omnipotent thrones over their utopian Islamic state, Iranians have connected to the world via technology–in spite of official censorship. After years of sham elections, Iranians have longed for a transparency that was impossible in a place where the clergy ruled by fiat. Even without the loudmouth Ahmedinejad, the people would have eventually reacted to a ruling class that has gotten too remote from the realities of everyday life.
There is also demographics to consider: Iran is getting younger and younger. Most Iranians between 21-40 have little, if any, primary knowledge of the Islamic Revolution. They have no concept of the “bad old days” of the Shah. They’re probably not listening to you if you tried to tell them–those earbuds on that IPod really blot out that sound, don’t they? Stability and normalcy are their everyday life, and they are also aware of the rest. That “rest” is the corruption of the elites, the sham elections, and the lack of real progress in the Islamic Republic.
I think that after the protests and anger subsides, Ahmedinejad will stay in power but under a tight leash. The clerics will have no choice. Suppressing any dissent in the age of viral video and streaming media mean that the world will be watching. On the other hand, they have to save some sort of face, since Ahmedinejad was considered their guy. To preserve the power of the clerics, they must be pro-active and either remove or harness Ahmedinejad until the Guardian Council can plan their next move.
What the mullahs don’t want is the logical next step. When the ire of the people moves from the puppets of the clerics to the clerics themselves–and it will happen, eventually–the clerics had better invest in slacks.
And start running for their lives.
The Strange Bedfellows in US Foreign Policy
President Barack Obama meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in June 2009. Today, Egyptians are protesting to remove Mubarak from power. Photo via the San Francisco Sentinel
At one point, the United States, a beacon of democracy and freedom, turned to a despotic, autocratic tyrant for friendship and alliance during a volatile period.
As soon as the situation was resolved, however, that very same despotic regime caused mixed feelings among Americans, often leading to violent confrontation.
By the way, I’m not talking about Egypt.
It was 1778, and a young United States turned to France, an absolute monarchy almost completely anathema to the ideals of the young nation, as an ally in its war for independence against the British Empire.
When that very same regime became engulfed in revolution a decade later, the new regime divided Americans as never before—and confused US foreign policy into a “quasi-war” with France from 1798-1800.
The recent turmoil in Egypt has us looking at the often strange decisions made in the name of national interest. In looking at the protests aimed to oust Hosni Mubarak, many classrooms will be full of questions about the situation. They range from the mundane (“Where is Egypt?”) to the profound (“How can we resolve the situation?”) and even the profoundly dumb (“Who cares about Egypt?”).
Yet one question cannot be avoided: “Why are we friends with a guy like Mubarak in the first place?”
It’s time to teach your kids the painful truth about American diplomacy—it makes for strange bedfellows who tend to stay too long in the sack.
It doesn’t stop at Mubarak and the corpulent king of France. Josef Stalin, Chiang Kai-shek, Mao Zedong (once he was dying), the folks in China after Mao kicked the bucket, Ferdinand Marcos, Suharto, the entire Thai government, Ngo Dinh Diem, Syngman Rhee, the assholes after Syngman Rhee, Islam Karimov, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, Saddam Hussein (before he got greedy),The Saudi Monarchy, The monarchies of the rest of the Gulf states, Mobutu Sese Seko, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, the white regimes in both Rhodesia and South Africa, Rafael Trujillo, Fulgencio Batista, Anastasio Somoza (plus the other Somozas), Manuel Noriega (before he got greedy), Marcos Perez Jimenez, Augusto Pinochet, Hugo Banzer, Alfredo Stroessner and the host of lovable scamps involved in military governments in Brazil and Argentina.
All of these people rotting in hell (we hope). All of these people received, at one point or another, the blessing, cooperation, and (the important part) funding from the most powerful democracy on Earth.
We were often taught that the United States was “special” amongst its brethren nations in that its high moral purpose and philosophical vision would mean its actions would also be of such moral stature. The US wouldn’t stoop to make treaties with dictatorships, nor “torture” prisoners for information: Americans “just don’t do that sort of thing.”
Well, not only do we do “that sort of thing,” but we’re real good at it—since we’ve been doing it since our founding.
Foreign relations, one learns quickly, has very little to do with lofty philosophical ideals or moral imperatives. To be sure, the base of diplomacy lies more in the market bazaar than the debating hall: economics and mutual security drive national ties far more than shared ideology.
Today’s diplomatic landscape certainly owes much to our wallets. In the United States, most people worry about gas and consumer prices. Thus, we make nice with two nasty regimes that take care of our needs. The Saudis and their autocratic buddies in the Gulf take care to juice up our SUVs and assorted land monsters. The Chinese and their sundry client states around the South China Sea make sure your little brats get everything they want for Christmas—as well as stock your shelves at Wal-Mart and Target.
During the Cold War, the United States’ biggest diplomatic priorities were thwarting Communism and spreading American ideals—in that order. To wit, many of the people we cozied up to from the 1940s to the 1990s shared only an intense anti-Communist streak. Being that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” the US looked the other way as dissidents were slaughtered in soccer stadiums, tortured with electrodes, and subjected to inhuman conditions while everything, at least on the surface, looked rosy.
As far as Egypt goes, the mutual enemy isn’t Communism but rather Islamic fundamentalism. The Muslim Brotherhood, an illegal Islamist group that allegedly masterminded the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981 (leading to Mubarak’s accession), is the great bogeyman of the Egyptian government. Mubarak fears that his departure would cede Egypt to the Brotherhood, thus plunging the ancient country into the darkness of an Islamic state. I’m not completely convinced this is the case, considering the impact of the military on the country, but it’s been reason enough for the United States to stand by Mubarak for three decades.
The United States is not alone in allying itself with distasteful regimes. Other countries, notably in Europe, have done the same thing. To an extent, these connections provide the United States with many of the products, materials and resources we need at the prices we want. The average American has, on the whole, benefitted at least economically from these questionable partnerships.
Yet as you think about the people risking their lives in Cairo, Alexandria and all over Egypt, one can’t help wondering: is it worth it?
There’s no easy answer to that. We cannot judge all foreign policy as a whole: relations with each country have their own characteristics. Yet the better students can see how all aspects of national identity—economic, military, financial and ethical—affect international relations, all the better for the American diplomats of the future.
The following are some resources about US foreign policy with dictators as well as about the Egypt crisis:
An article from Salon.com featuring three authoritarian regimes that are friendly with the US.
A Report about US policy towards dictatorships from the Cato Institute made during the height of the Cold War in the 1980s.
A 2002 Global Issues article about support for dicatorships and terrorism.
YouTube compilations of news coverage of the Egyptian protests.
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