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Opinion | The Attacks on Libya: Lessons for Iranians

by MUHAMMAD SAHIMI in Los Angeles

31 Mar 2011 15:15Comments
ahmadinejad+and+gaddafi.jpgThe struggle for democracy and rule of law must remain peaceful and free from foreign intervention.

[ opinion ] Political developments in the Middle East and North Africa have come at a dizzying pace. First, on December 17, a simple Tunisian street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself on fire to protest the confiscation of his wares and the harassment and humiliation that had been inflicted on him by a municipal official. The self-immolation killed Bouazizi and sparked the Tunisian Revolution. Large-scale demonstrations were held throughout the country in protest at political repression, rampant unemployment, and food prices that had soared out of control, all exacerbated by the corruption under then President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. He was forced to step down on January 14 after 23 years in power and took refuge in Saudi Arabia.

Inspired by the Tunisian Revolution, the people of Egypt took to the streets on January 25, rising against Hosni Mubarak's regime, which had presided over Egypt since 1981 with the iron fist of emergency rule -- essentially marshal law. The peaceful uprising encompassed demonstrations, marches, civil disobedience, and labor strikes. The same socioeconomic factors that gave rise to the revolution in Tunisia were also at work in Egypt. Under tremendous pressure by the Obama administration, Mubarak resigned from office on February 11.

Almost at the same time as in Egypt, major demonstrations broke out in the Yemeni capital of Sana'a on January 27. Demonstrations against Yemen's government are nothing new, having taken place periodically since 2004. But this time the Yemeni people had allies in other parts of the Arab world. Ali Abdullah Saleh, the man who has been Yemen's president for 32 years, announced on February 2 that he would undertake reforms and neither seek "reelection" in 2013 nor try to pass power on to his son. The revolution is still ongoing, with major officials and army commanders defecting and joining the people.

As soon as Mubarak was ousted, demonstrations broke out in Bahrain, the tiny island nation in the southern Persian Gulf. Ruled by King Hamad ibn Isa al-Khalifa, Bahrain hosts the United States Fifth Fleet. February 14 was selected as the "day of anger" because it was the tenth anniversary of a referendum in which Bahraini voters approved a National Action Charter that instituted partial democratic reforms. This Ebruary 14, a group of young Bahrainis declared that their goal is to rewrite the constitution and establish a body with a "full popular mandate to investigate and hold to account economic, political, and social violations, including stolen public wealth, political naturalization, arrests, torture, and other oppressive security measures, [and] institutional and economic corruption."

The king first promised reforms. But when the protests continued, he used brutal force to put down the demonstrators. When that failed, he invited in 1,000 troops from Saudi Arabia and 500 policemen from the United Arab Emirates to quell the uprising. It is clear that the Sunni Arabs who rule Bahrain and its intervening allies view the uprising as a fight between them and the Shiites, Bahrain's majority, whom they fear are influenced by Iran. Despite the king's repeated claims to the contrary, there is little, if any, evidence that the Bahraini people are guided by Iran's Shia rulers. They want only a more representative government, not one modeled after Iran's. That uprising continues, as well.

The uprising in Libya against the rule of Colonel Muammar Qaddafi, who has been in power since 1969, began on February 15. The demonstrators called for new leadership and democratic elections. The uprising quickly spread, prompting Qaddafi to respond with force, censorship, and the blocking of communications, very similar to to the way Iran's hardliners reacted to the peaceful demonstrations in the aftermath of the 2009 presidential election. In contrast to Iran, however, Qaddafi offered to hold talks with opposition leaders, but the rebels declared that they were unwilling to negotiate with him and demanded that he resign. They announced the formation of a Transitional National Council in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi. The names of several of its 31 members have been kept secret.

The uprising soon turned into a full armed struggle, with Western powers taking the side of the rebels, although they claim that their mission is only "humanitarian." Under pressure by the three Western nations that hold veto power, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 1970, which ordered a freeze on the assets of Qaddafi and ten members of his inner circle, and imposed restrictions on their travel. The resolution also referred the Libyan government to the International Criminal Court for investigation of its actions. After forces loyal to Qaddafi recaptured several coastal cities, the [Persian] Gulf Cooperation Council, which consists of six Arab states, issued a statement on March 8 calling on the UNSC to impose an air embargo on Libya to protect civilians. Four days later, the Arab League demanded the same, with only Algeria and Syria voting against the measure. Thus Resolution 1973, authorizing enforcement of a no-fly zone over Libya, was passed by the UNSC. Britain, France, and the United States began attacking Libya's air defenses to enforce the no-fly zone. On March 25, after several days of heated debate over who should control the operation, NATO declared that it would be taking over command of the no-fly zone. The battle between Qaddafi's loyalists and the rebels rages on.

Given Iranians' own struggle with a dictatorial regime, the question is what Iranian nationalists -- regardless of whether they support the Green Movement or not -- can learn from the developments in the region. I have already described what I believe to be the lessons of the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt for Iranians and the Green Movement. However, I believe Iran's situation most resembles not those two cases, but rather that of Libya.

Both regimes came to power after overthrowing secular monarchical dictatorships. Both are highly ideological. In his Green Book, published in 1975, Qaddafi mixes aspects of socialism with Islam and rejects democracy. Tehran's hardliners use a reactionary interpretation of Islamic teachings as their ideological cover and also reject democracy, as defined by truly open and fair elections and acceptance of people's votes without any attempt at fraud. Neither is willing to hold such elections.

Both regimes have been a thorn in the side of the West for decades. Even after Qaddafi gave up his country's nuclear program in December 2003, and full diplomatic relations between Western countries were reestablished, the West was still wary of the Libyan dictator.

Both regimes are of the military/security/intelligence brand. Qaddafi, an army colonel when he staged the coup in 1969 that brought him to power, enjoys significant support among his armed forces and rules through his intelligence apparatus. Likewise, in Iran the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, together with the intelligence apparatus, provides crucial support for the status quo, without which the regime would collapse.

Both regimes are also supported by a minority of the population that is, however, armed to the teeth and controls the respective national resources. Sons of leaders of both regimes play crucial roles in the suppression of dissent. In Iran's case, Mojtaba Khamenei has provided significant behind-the-scenes support to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Two of Qaddafi's seven sons, Saif al-Islam Muammar al-Qaddafi and Khamis al-Qaddafi, have played important roles in the current civil war. Saif has served in his father's government and acted as spokesman during the uprising. Khamis has served as commander of the Libyan Army's elite Khamis Brigade.

Both countries have major oil reserves. Libya's proven and recoverable oil reserves, largest in Africa and ninth largest in the world, are estimated to be close to 42 billion barrels, which at the current price of oil are worth $4.2 trillion. Iran's proven and recoverable oil reserves of 150 billion barrels represent 10 percent of the globe's entire stock and rank second or third in the world depending on how Canada's unconventional reserves are counted. The government recently announced new offshore oil discoveries in the Persian Gulf. Both regimes rely heavily on revenue from oil exports.

Both regimes claim that they present an independent "third path" of governance to the world, yet their path is nothing but dictatorship.

Both regimes exercise tight control over the mass media. There is no independent television or radio station in either country. Neither has a truly independent press. In Iran, the few newspapers with reformist tendencies are heavily censored. Opposition news websites and blogs are blocked, as they are in Libya. Reporters without Borders ranks Libya 160th and Iran 175th out of 178 nations in terms of freedom of the press.

Both nations, despite their astronomical oil income, suffer from high unemployment because of the incompetence and inveterate corruption of their leaders. Libya's rate of unemployment is estimated to be 30 percent. In Iran, the official rate is around 14 percent, but many believe that it is actually much higher.

Both regimes have disparaged their opposition in the ugliest, most insulting terms. Ahmadinejad referred to the Green Movement as khas-o khashak (dust and dirt), while Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei characterized the opposition as "microbes." Qaddafi has referred to the Libyan opposition as "bothersome insects, mice, and dogs."

Both regimes have drawn an artificial "red line" for the opposition, which prohibits questioning either the political system or its paramount leader -- Khamenei in Iran, Qaddafi in Libya. Both threatened that if the red line were crossed, violence would be used, and both regimes made good on those threats.

The only important difference between the two regimes is that Tehran's hardliners have created strategic depth for themselves by supporting Hezbollah in Lebanon and Shia groups in Iraq, both of which are now effectively in power. In addition, the hardliners support the Palestinian group Hamas, and Iran is considered a major player in Afghanistan. The strategic depth has acted as a deterrent for the hardliners. Qaddafi's regime does not enjoy such support.

But the similarities between the two nations also extend to their respective populations:

The literacy rate in Libya is estimated to be 85 percent, about the same as in Iran.

Eighty-eight percent of Libyan citizens live in urban areas, the highest in the region. At least 67 percent of Iranians are urban residents, according to a 2005 estimate. However, while tribal identification is still important in Libya, in Iran, though tribal allegiance persists in some parts of the country, it does not play a significant political role.

The populations of both nations are young. Two-thirds of Libya's 6.5 million people are under the age of 35 and half of the population is under 15, with the median close to 24. In Iran's case, two-thirds of the population is under 30 and one-quarter is under 15.

Both nations have strong feminist movements that have long struggled against discriminatory gender laws. In Libya, women are playing an increasingly important role in society. In Iran, female activists have been at the forefront of the democratic struggle for nearly a century.

Given the striking similarities between Iran and Libya in terms of both their regimes and their general populace, what should be the position of Iranian nationalists -- again, regardless of their position on the Green Movement -- concerning the West's Libyan intervention? Should they wish for a similar intervention in Iran, if push comes to shove with the hardliners at the scale that we are seeing in Libya? In my opinion, even if the West were sincere in its claim that it wants only to save civilians from Qaddafi's guns, all the truly antiwar activists, and in particular the Iranian nationalists that are against war, must reject the intervention. The reasons for this are at least eightfold.

First, the West, and in particular the United States, is not interested in democracy and the rule of law in the Middle East and North Africa. In every case, from Libya to Bahrain, the United States and its allies did nothing until the people of these countries revolted and their uprisings became too strong to ignore. Moreover, why do they not pressure Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Jordan, and Algeria, all U.S. allies, to become democratic?

Second, if the "humanitarian" pretext that has been presented to the public to justify the attacks in Libya is sincere, where is the outrage about the killing of innocent civilians in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Palestine, and Somalia, not to mention Bahrain and Yemen? How many civilians were killed in Iraq as a result of the invasion by the United States and Britain? At the minimum, 70,000, and perhaps as many as a million.

Third, and more importantly, in my opinion the United States did not aid the Egyptian revolution, but actually aborted it. When the opposition appeared to be too strong, the Obama administration and the Pentagon pressured the Egyptian army to remove Mubarak, so that the rest of his regime could be saved. And that is exactly what has happened. The same military men, such as Lieutenant General Sami Hafez Enan, chief of staff of the armed forces and the Pentagon's preferred candidate in the upcoming presidential elections, and Defense Minister Field Marshal Mohamed Hossein Tantawi, Mubarak's "poodle" and a man mocked for his incompetence, are still in command. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces that rules Egypt is still intact and emergency rule is still in force. Some cosmetic changes were made in the cabinet, such as removing the infamous torture master Vice President Omar Suleiman. Some minor changes in the constitution were also approved in a referendum on March 20, but the basic structure of Mubarak's regime is unaltered.

Fourth, compare the treatment that Egypt -- one of the "pillars of U.S. Middle East policy" -- received with what has been happening in Bahrain, Yemen, and Libya. In Bahrain, the Sunni minority that makes up 30 percent of the population rules the Shia majority via an absolute monarchy. It is home to the United States Fifth Fleet, which monitors Iran, and it is protected by Saudi Arabia, which is led by one of the most reactionary regimes in the world. Bahrain's king used tanks against peaceful demonstrators, just as Qaddafi has done. Yes, the United States protested mildly, but did little else. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, both close U.S. allies, sent troops to Bahrain, not to help the demonstrators, but to save its regime. Yemen's dictator, Ali Abdullah Saleh, also used tanks and artillery against his opponents, but where are the United States and its allies to prevent the massacre of Yemenis? It is utterly hypocritical to intervene in Libya, but do practically nothing in Yemen and Bahrain.

Fifth, the United States and its allies claim that they have not taken sides in Libya's civil war, but just want to save the opposition in the eastern part of the country from being killed, as if this is something new. Well, friction between eastern and western Libya is nothing new. It was the Ottoman Empire's design to pit the two regions against each other in order to control the country. February 15 was selected for the beginning of demonstrations against Qaddafi because it represented the fifth anniversary of the 2006 uprising in Benghazi. And where were the Western powers then? Busy reestablishing diplomatic relations with Qaddafi's regime and reaping large oil contracts. Lest we forget, 90 percent of Libya's oil fields are in the eastern part of the country, in Sirte Basin. It has been argued that Libya's oil reserves, as large as they are, are not very significant. But those who make that case miss the point: What is crucial is not the size of the reserves, although Libya's are nothing to sneeze at, but who controls them and the price they set.

Sixth, the fact is that President Barack Obama's alleged reconciliation with the Islamic world, which he announced in his Cairo speech of June 4, 2009, has turned out to be nothing but a hoax. The United States wants to control the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa so that they will not produce nations that are democratic, but politically independent. It is worried that the sort of order that existed in the region, from which it benefited, it is being destroyed by the popular revolts. In a front-page article, the New York Times declared on March 19 that Obama "ordered" Qaddafi "to implement the cease-fire immediately and stop all attacks on Libyan civilians." Yes, the president ordered his Libyan counterpart, not "suggested," or "recommended," or "asked," or "requested," or simply "told" Qaddafi who, as terrible as he is, is still the ruler of a sovereign nation. This is suggestive of the extent of democracy that the United States wants in that part of the world. It is at best a sort of "directed democracy," as Condoleezza Rice once put it. Even then, that democracy is supposed to come out of the weapon bays of British, French, and American bombers.

Seventh, what guarantees that the outcome of the intervention in Libya, even if Qaddafi is defeated and overthrown, will be a democracy? At least two leading members of the Transitional National Council have been generals in Qaddafi's army; one, the army's commander when Libya invaded Chad in the 1980s, moved to the United States and lived in Virginia for nearly two decades.

Eighth, given the state of the U.S. economy, the alarming poverty, the crumbling infrastructure, the ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor, and the terrible state of the educational system, should we not try to demilitarize American foreign policy? Should we, as citizens of this country, not work to eliminate military intervention, bombing, and invasion as that policy's primary tools?

General David Sharp, U.S. Marine Corps commandant from 1960 to 1963, put it best when he said,

I believe that if we had and would keep our dirty, bloody, dollar-soaked fingers out of the business of these nations [in which the United States intervenes] so full of depressed, exploited people, they will arrive at a solution of their own -- and if unfortunately their revolution must be of the violent type because the haves refuse to share with the have-nots by any peaceful method, at least what they get will be their own, and not the American style, which they don't want and above all don't want crammed down their throats by Americans.

But sadly, some American progressives -- such as Juan Cole, whom I have admired for years -- have supported the NATO intervention in Libya. Cole presents several arguments for his position, none of which are convincing to me. For example, he writes, "The other Arab Spring demonstrations are not comparable to Libya, because in none of them has the scale [of] loss of life been replicated." That is simply not true. Consider Bahrain, where the scale of casualties in absolute numbers is smaller than in Libya, but only because the Libyan population is eight times larger. Moreover, how can one actually draw a line based on the number of casualties to determine when to intervene or not? It would be an utterly absurd proposition to establish such a figure. Cole and people like him do not realize that once this sort of intervention takes place, it sets a precedent that will be hard to resist in the future.

As another justification for his position, Cole declares that absolute isolationism and non-intervention does not work. He observes, "Leftists are not always isolationists. In the United States, progressive people actually went to fight in the Spanish Civil War, forming the Lincoln Brigade." He thus compares the entirely volunteer progressive fighters who battled alongside the republicans in the Spanish Civil War, and the imperialist-style intervention of the United States, France, and Britain in Libya. That is a totally absurd comparison, never mind that the Lincoln Brigade volunteers were considered security risks by the U.S. government at the time.

There has always been a minority faction among the Iranian opposition in the diaspora that has supported foreign intervention in Iran. The Mojahedin-e Khalgh Organization (MKO) collaborated with Saddam Hussein's regime during the Iran-Iraq War. When the war ended in 1988, the group staged its own Iraqi-based invasion of Iran, known as Operation Eternal Light by the MKO and Operation Mersaad by the Islamic Republic. The MKO force was easily defeated, and the invasion resulted in thousands of casualties -- the MKO itself acknowledged losing about 1,700 members. (Mersaad, Arabic for "trap," refers to the fact that MKO forces were trapped and slaughtered.) Since then, the MKO, presenting itself as a "third way," has sought to be armed by the West so that it can overthrow the Islamic Republic -- a vain prospect, as the MKO is despised by a vast majority of Iranians and has no significant support within the country.

The extreme right of the opposition in the diaspora has also favored foreign intervention in Iran. It applauded when the George W. Bush administration invaded Iraq in 2003 and did its best -- to the point of fabricating lies -- to provide Bush with an excuse to attack Iran. This part of the opposition is allied with American neoconservatives and includes not only a faction of the monarchists, but also some former political activists who have moved to the United States, even some who consider themselves progressive.

The neoconservatives in Washington are now undertaking an effort to force the State Department to remove the MKO from its list of terrorist organizations. The aim is to bring together the MKO, the extreme right, and some of the people in the United States who claim to speak on behalf of, or at least support, the Green Movement and its leaders in Iran. At the same time, efforts are under way to discredit the Green Movement, thereby justifying the invention of alternatives to it. American-funded broadcasts have been busy in this regard (see here for an example). Even Josh Block, former spokesman of the AIPAC, that bastion of democracy and peace lovers in the Middle East, has gotten into the act. The so-called Progressive Policy Institute and Freedom House have initiated a new task force aimed at moving American policy on Iran toward a "more aggressive focus on democracy." This Iran Strategy Task Force comes with its own subtitle: "Beyond Sanctions." Block is one of the group's two co-chairmen. The other is Andrew Apostolou, formerly of the Foundation for Defense of Democracy, now with Freedom House. I will write more about this group in the near future.

The true supporters of the Green Movement should declare that anyone claiming to support the movement who joins such efforts is no longer part of the Green Movement, which is indigenous and homegrown. As Mir Hossein Mousavi warned last year, the movement must not allow opportunists and foreign agents to distort its image, goals, and principles. The Green Movement -- as Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, as well as former President Mohammad Khatami, have emphasized repeatedly -- is against military attacks or threats and any sanctions that hurt the common people. Anyone who joins the neoconservative efforts does great harm to the Green Movement.

Aside from the immense physical damage that military attacks on Iran, even if well intentioned, would inflict upon the nation, those Iranians who applaud the intervention in Libya must think hard about a few key issues:

It is quite possible that Libya may be partitioned between the oil-rich eastern part, supported by the West, and the western part controlled by Qaddafi and his loyalists. Applying such a scenario to Iran, that would be tantamount to separating Khuzestan province from the rest of the country.

If in Libya's case there are just two parts of the country fighting against each other, the situation would be far more complex in Iran, which has substantial minority populations, including Kurds, Lors, Baluchs, Azeris, and Arabs. Any sort of Western-backed civil war in Iran would gravely endanger the nation's territorial integrity.

Thus, if the civil war in Libya is teaching Iranian nationalists any lesson, it is that the struggle for democracy and the rule of law must remain peaceful and self-sustained. Iran and Iranians, and certainly the Green Movement, do not need the crocodile tears of the neoconservatives and their Iranian allies, nor do they need foreign military support or threats, nor sanctions that hurt only the common people. They can and will achieve victory on their own.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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