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2011 06 07

'Iranophobia' a creation of U.S. foreign policy
               Series of decisions in Washington fostered extremism in what is otherwise a very progressive, educated nation poised for democratization Late last year Akbar Ganji, an Iranian dissident journalist who recently spent six years in a Tehran prison, visited Edmonton on a Canada-wide tour after receiving the 2007 John Humphrey Freedom Award. His acceptance speech shed important light on the dark side of debates about democracy in the Middle East that many North Americans might find both valuable and surprising.
by Mojtaba Mahdavi

Wednesday, January 09, 2008
               Ganji's central argument was that the dominant global order determined by the West ~ and by U.S. foreign policy in particular ~ does not promote democracy in the Middle East. On the contrary, it often diminishes prospects for grassroots and dynamic democratic movements, and actually contributes to the rise of extremism.
               Western governments, he says, pursue their own interests through "double-standard policies," under which they make peace with "the worst dictators on the planet." They "turn a blind eye to extensive violations of human rights and lack of democracy by their allies, but they hold a magnifying glass over human rights violations committed by their enemies."
               It is true that governments in the global south are responsible for poverty and social inequality in their countries. But Western governments have played a significant role in the emergence of "poverty and wretchedness in those societies through their direct or indirect support" of incompetent rulers. They therefore bear their share of the responsibility.
               As such, Ganji says, national democracy and international justice can't be dealt separately. One has to fight poverty, illiteracy, social injustice, inequality and violation of human rights both at national and international levels.
               The West has constantly supported its friendly tyrants "as long as they were allied to the Western governments," delivered oil, and preserved the status quo. These tyrants systematically demolished democratic and progressive alternatives in their countries. The results have been revolutions, resistance movements and extremism.

The return of the Shah
               Iran is a case in point, where U.S. foreign policy has constantly contributed to the rise and consolidation of extremism.
               In 1953, the U.S. and Great Britain overthrew Mohammad Mosaddeq's democratic government in a coup, restored the Shah to power, and then supported his brutal, corrupt regime to the end. This was the first regime change in Iran after the Second World War ~ against a secular democratic government. It was also the first punishment of Iranians for supporting a nationalist government. The 1979 revolution was a response to such policy.
               A few months after the revolution, Saddam Hussein of Iraq invaded Iran to begin an eight-year war. War crimes were committed before the eyes of international community. The West supplied arms to both sides because, as Henry Kissinger said, this was "one war with two losers."
               For most Western countries, Saddam was an instrument to fight the revolutionary Iran. Ronald Reagan's administration took Iraq off the list of states supporting terror and Donald Rumsfeld met Saddam to offer American financial and military help against Iran. Iran suffered 500,000 casualties and was the target of chemical weapons supplied by the West.
               On the domestic front, Iran's hardliners seized the moment to suppress the opposition and consolidate their power. Once again Western foreign policy contributed to de-democratization of Iranian politics. This was the second time that Iran was punished for making its own destiny.
               The third event happened after Sept. 11, 2001 when President George W. Bush named Iran as one among the three states of the "Axis of Evil." The speech shocked the reformists who had worked with the post-Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Bush's policy of "regime change" and its implementation in Iran's two neighbouring countries ~ Afghanistan and Iraq ~ put President Mohammad Khatami's reformist government in a weak position.
               Bush's speech reminded people of the 1953 coup and raised much speculation about the U.S. plan for regime change in Iran. It persuaded some reformists to lower their voices and wait for better days. Washington continued repeating its charges about Iran's violation of human rights despite improvements under Khatami, in contrast to its silence in the 1980s when it had no immediate impact on U.S. interests.
               Another key development was the Bush administration's rejection of a proposal by Khatami for a comprehensive compromise with the U.S. The neoconservatives believed that they were winning the war in Iraq and that Iran would be the next target.
               Iran continued to talk to Britain, France, and Germany (the "E3") and suspended its nuclear enrichment for two years from 2003-05. But the effort never met Iran's expectation that the U.S. would abandon its regime-change policy and lift economic sanctions.

Ahmadinejad takes over
               Then a new Iranian president, Mahmood Ahmadinejad, seized the moment to radicalize nuclear policy. Only in December 2007 did the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate suggest that Iran suspended its nuclear weapons-program in 2003.
               Ganji argues that Washington's policy towards Iran is fundamentally flawed. What should be done? "Extensive investment in Iran, selling it advanced technology, taking into consideration Iran's regional interests and granting Iran an active role in the international community can form part of a package of proposals aimed at bringing about respect for human rights and the transition to democracy.
               "The regime's human rights violations do not justify U.S. threats of military attack, nor does an exaggerated risk of nuclear bomb procurement. Bombing Iranian infrastructure will not improve democracy, security or human rights in the country. But it will certainly inflame extremism both in Iran and the region."
               As Ganji argues, Iran's democratic movement expects the Canadian government to repeat its wise and brave decision not to enter the Iraq war by becoming the standard-bearer of opposition to any military attack on Iran.
               We should also oppose any sanctions that exacerbate the pain and suffering of innocent Iranians. Iran's strong pro-democracy youth movement would be the main casualty of war and economic sanctions.
               Iran is a real wonderland. It contains complex and contradictory features. Iran is an old civilization, and yet a remarkably young nation -- 70 per cent of its 70 million people are under age 30; they are exposed to modern values through satellites and the Internet. They know more about the West than the West knows about them.
               Iran is a unique country in the region where more than 60 per cent of university students are female and philosophy books sometimes outsell novels. Farsi/Persian is the world third most common blogging language with more than 70,000 blogs, half belonging to women. Iran is a land of reforms and revolutions; with its recent experiences, it may well be the first to enter the new era of "post-Islamist Islam," as a result of having lived for three decades under the Islamic Republic.

Ready for democracy
               Contemporary Iran is prepared for a radical democratic transformation. The idea of democracy in Iran is neither a sudden development nor a western import; it is instead rooted in modern Iranian history.
               Thanks to the revolution, Iran is no longer ruled by absolute monarchy. The Iranian state is not a totalitarian polity; it is not "one-man, one-show" politics. The post-revolutionary period has not witnessed an absolute totalitarian polity due to the complex nature of state and substantial societal pressures.
               In social terms, Iran is free of the ill-effects of tribalism and landlordism. It has a vibrant dynamic civil society, a high literacy rate (83 per cent), a per-capita national income of more than $7,000 US per year, and a high level of urbanization and communication.
               "Iran is the key to the Middle East," Ganji says. "Democratization in Iran will lead to the democratization of the entire region -- support for democracy and human rights in Iran are the moral duty of governments and civil institutions in Western countries."
               Iran represented by Iranophobia is a myth; the real Iran is prepared for democracy. Only one thing stops this grassroots gradual democratization: American sabre-rattling.

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Mojtaba Mahdavi is an assistant professor in the Middle Eastern and African Studies Program of the U of A's department of political science. An Iranian, Mahdavi is the author of a forthcoming book on the prospects of democratization in his homeland.
contact: mojtaba.mahdavi@ualberta.ca