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A Holy Mess

The Anglo-American policy of engagement appears to have been a fiasco, its time to try something new

January 8


London , United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland - 8 Jan 2018 - Ghassan Matar

Iran’s relentless imperialism is denounced by most Arab & Western states as well as by Iranians who do not want to see their nation’s assets wasted in Arab civil wars, in particular, Iran’s relentless support of Hezbollah in Lebanon, which has undermined Lebanon, the only real Arab democracy, crippling its political system, destroying its economy by driving away foreign direct investments, driving away tourists and bringing destruction and instability through endless skirmishes with Israel.

Iran’s support of Hezbollah has always been somewhat hypocritical; on the one hand, Hezbollah’s “raison d'être” is always portrayed as protecting Lebanon or the Shiites from Israel; yet the late Ayatollah Khomeini always saw Israel, which was supported by Washington as a welcome political and military counterbalance to its Arab neighbours with Lebanon’s role being its host nation.

Ayatollah Khomeini, harshly criticized Israel for the occupation of the Palestinian territories and as soon as he had assumed power, cancelled all agreements with Israel previously established under the Shah, however cooperation was revived secretly by the start of the Iran-Iraq war in September 1980.

Mossad’s Tehran representative, Eliezar Shafrir, had even received a plea to assassinate Khomeini from Shapour Bakhtiar, appointed caretaker prime minister by the Shah to head off growing protests, but Israel chose to ignore his pleas.

When Israel intervened in the Lebanese civil war and marched into southern Lebanon in 1982, Khomeini sent Iran's revolutionary guards to Beirut to support the local Shiite militia. To this very day, the militant Hezbollah group that emerged back then is still regarded, as the long arm of Tehran in Lebanon.

This Iranian revolution was always a revolution without a border, and given the collapse of the regional state system, the Islamic Republic saw unique opportunities to project its power. Unimpressed by the revolution in Tehran, almost the entire western world supported Iraq, which had been armed to the hilt by the United States. Israel, on the other hand, regarded Saddam Hussein's regime as the greater threat - and sided with Khomeini supplying him with arms totaling $500 million (365 million euros) in the first three years of the war.

Ayatollah Khomeini returned the favor when rumors started that Iraq was working on a nuclear bomb - a threat neither Jerusalem nor Tehran could accept. Iran's intelligence agency passed on valuable information to the Israeli air force, which bombed Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981, setting back the suspected Iraqi nuclear program by years.

Once again, Israel stepped in to help Iran. In November 1986, the Iran-Contra affair hit the United States: senior administration officials had secretly sold thousands of anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles to Tehran and used proceeds from the weapons sales to fund rightwing Contra rebels in Nicaragua.

It was only in the wake of that scandal and the end of the Iran-Iraq war in 1988, ties between Israel and Iran were finally severed. Iraq, the common enemy, was weakened, and eventually more or less neutralized by the US-led Operation Desert Storm three years later.

Relations between Iran and Israel eventually entered a cold war like state, where Tehran actively used Hezbollah as a proxy militia to undermine any peace deal between the Israeli state and the Arabs, which would see East Jerusalem, handed over to the Arabs. As far as Iran was concerned, the Arabs should never take control of both Muslim sacred holy sites.

The origin of the current Iranian crisis, which dominates the vast majority of all current political debates can be traced all the way back to the military coup that overthrew Mosaddeq and his national front cabinet, codenamed TPAJAX which was carried out by both the CIA and MI6.

Britain, and in particular Sir Anthony Eden, the foreign secretary, regarded Mosaddeq as a serious threat to its strategic and economic interests after the Iranian leader nationalised the British Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, latterly known as BP. But the UK needed US support. The Eisenhower administration in Washington was easily persuaded and since then, both countries have been mired in an endless and pointless cold war with Iran.

Unlike other nationalist leaders, including Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser, Mosaddeq epitomised a unique "anti-colonial" figure who was also committed to democratic values and human rights.

Once again, greedy Western interests, in this case, the UK’s desire for Mosaddeq to undermine his own national movement by giving up his policy of oil nationalization, set in motion a series of events that would culminate in the death of Mosaddeq, the reinstatement of Anglo control of Iranian oil fields and the eventual birth of the Iranian revolution which has gone on to destabilize the entire Middle East region, and brought the world a second cold war.

Jimmy Carter, entered the political fray in 1976, when America was still riding the liberal wave of anti-Vietnam War emotion.

Carter was persuaded that the Shah was not fit to rule Iran, and for all sense and purposes was correct in his assessment. In his anti-war pacifism, Carter never got it that Khomeini, a cleric exiled to Iraq, was preparing Iran for revolution. His weapon of choice was not the sword but the media. Using tape cassettes smuggled by Iranian pilgrims returning from the holy city of Najaf, he fueled disdain for what he called “gharbzadegi” (the plague of Western culture).

Under Carter’s predecessor, Richard Nixon, the U.S. had enacted what became known as the “Twin Pillar Doctrine.” His approach was to establish American military substitutes in various regions, especially in Iran and Saudi Arabia, to deter the Soviet Union and provide protection for U.S. interests. Iran received such a designation and was thus, guaranteed access to U.S. arms in abundance.

Carter perceived Khomeini as a religious holy man in a grassroots revolution than the founding father of modern terrorism.

Carter’s ambassador to the United Nations, Andrew Young, said” Khomeini will eventually be hailed as a saint.” Carter’s Iranian ambassador, William Sullivan, said, “Khomeini is a Gandhi-like figure.” Carter adviser James Bill proclaimed on Feb. 12, 1979, that Khomeini was not a mad mujahid, but a man of “impeccable integrity and honesty.”

Khamenei as well as the hardliners are likely to continue to use their commanding institutional power to impose their vision of pristine Islamist rule. In their eyes, both reformers and centrists stand suspect today as their promises have only provoked popular insurrections. Iran’s conservatives are imbued with an ideology that views the essential purpose of the state as the realization of God’s will on Earth.

Such an exalted task mandates the assumption of power not by tentative moderates but devout revolutionaries. Given such ideological inclinations, the hardliners are utterly contemptuous of democratic accountability and are unconcerned about their loss of popularity and widespread dissatisfaction with theocratic rule. The legitimacy of state does not rest on the collective will but on a mandate from heaven.

For years, Khamenei has continued the late policies of Khomeini, which has insisted on a “resistance economy” that would wean itself of oil experts, seek to protect domestic industries from overseas competition, avoid trade with the West in favor of local markets and keep its funds out of international banks. The more modern version has been the adoption of the Yuan for trade with China to bypass sanctions, closer cooperation with Russia and Rouhani had sought to rely on foreign investments to regenerate the economy, a policy always distrusted by a supreme leader suspicious of the West and enchanted by notions of self-sufficiency and self-reliance.

For the hardliners, integration into the global economy is a trap that could unleash liberalizing forces that would overwhelm their regime and threaten their divine experiment. Iran’s austere economy is unlikely to raise the people’s standards of living, but the revolution can only survive in isolation from the West.

Even though reinventing itself as a liberal and modern economy with good international relations is the best way to avert internal strife, Tehran is too proud of its Hezbollah protégé in Lebanon, too invested in the Syrian civil war and too involved in the murky politics of Iraq to dispense with foreign adventurism just because it is becoming a financial burden. Imperialism has always been tempting to revolutionaries despite the fact that its costs usually outweigh its benefits. The revamped conservative regime in Iran is likely to be even more aggressive in enabling its allies.

The current protests sweeping Iran belie the once popular notion that the spirit of the Green Revolution that nearly toppled the Islamic Republic in 2009 has been extinguished. It is possible that an Islamist regime with little compunction about killing its own citizens will survive this latest challenge to its authority. Should it survive, the Iranian theocracy will not be the same, with the principal casualty of this week being the presidency of Hassan Rouhani.

There is no sign that the corrupt, pseudo-theocratic gerontocracy can reduce the country to such docility as the junta in Burma (Myanmar) did with protesters there last year. In Burma, it was the military suppressing the clergy; that country has no tradition of successful mass disturbances, is little influenced by its neighbors, and is not nearly as well covered by cell phones, the Internet, and text-messaging as Iran is.

Iran already had a tradition of mass uprisings, going back to the shah's father, not to mention the famous 1952 demonstrations for Mohammed Mosaddeq.

In Iran, if the protesting masses cannot in the end be dispersed with tear gas, truncheons, fire hoses, and plastic and rubber bullets, it is unlikely that the security forces could be relied upon to use live ammunition on huge crowds of malcontents, any more than they could have been for the shah 30 years ago, or for Syngman Rhee in South Korea, Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, or Ceausescu in Romania.

Even if the ayatollahs can crush the opposition, they will have a much-reduced capacity to inspire Islamic extremism –and so the second link in what President Bush described, as an axis of evil will break.

In either case, President Obama was probably correct to respond cautiously, but he should not have declared neutrality while trying to wink supportively and believably at the opposition, Trump on the other hand should not pursue the same failed and hypocritical policies. If the U.S. is genuinely interested in democracy in Iran, then it should also respond equally to the thousands of demonstrators demanding that Netanyahu step down over corruption charges and not simply pick a side.

Instead of trying to suck and blow at the same time, the Anglo-American front should stop trying to pick the leaders of other countries and make it abundantly clear that the U.S. prefers fair to fixed elections, and freedom of speech and assembly to repression.

So far, the Anglo-American policy of engagement appears to have been a fiasco, as was widely predicted, but the enfeebling of the Tehran regime, or even, possibly, its collapse, could be the greatest bonanza of strategic good fortune for the region. To achieve this, London and Washington should finally end their endless pursuit of dominating Iran as a means of weakening Russia; instead, they should work with the Russians, who will walk away from Iran if they are convinced that the Anglo-Americans will not use Iran against them.

Furthermore, the United States should invest heavily in the Lebanon, in particular in areas close to Shiite influence; and provide jobs and security to Shiites; undermining Hezbollah. An approach like this is far cheaper than the current cost of instability and the potential cost of an all-out war against Iran.

Only by exploring fresh ideas will the Iranian people be freed from this ageing theocracy which has long entered the phase of self preservation.