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Opinion | Humanitarian Intervention or Naked Military Aggression?

by MUHAMMAD SAHIMI in Los Angeles

27 Nov 2011 18:22Comments
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In the view of this columnist, there is no doubt that the Tehran regime has lost all legitimacy in the eyes of the vast majority of the Iranian people. There is no question that the ruling elite has squandered Iran's resources, violated each and every right of the Iranian people, made corruption a routine part of its rule, and imprisoned, tortured, and murdered some of Iran's best children. This article is not about the regime; it's about the opposition and what it can or should do, in my opinion. It's also about the role of the Western powers, if any, in the democratization process.

[ opinion ] Over the last several weeks we have been witnessing a fierce propaganda campaign -- more precisely, psychological warfare -- against the Iranian regime by the American conservatives and neoconservatives and their confederates in Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the other absolute monarchies of the Persian Gulf, to "sell" the public the narrative that the Tehran regime is an existential threat to the United States and its Middle Eastern allies. It is, of course, no secret that both Israel and Saudi Arabia want the United States to attack Iran. Documents released by WikiLeaks showed that King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has repeatedly urged the United States to attack Iran and destroy its nuclear facilities. The same documents also showed that other Arab leaders have also secretly advocated military action against Iran, and that King Abdullah "frequently exhorted the U.S. to attack Iran" -- "to cut off the head of the snake," as Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi ambassador to Washington, put it. Since the United States invaded Iraq and toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein, Israel sees Iran as its only serious rival in the region.

The psychological operation began with the sudden announcement that U.S. authorities had discovered a plot, supposedly hatched in Iran with the approval of high-ranking officials, to assassinate al-Jubeir in Washington and carry out other terrorist attacks, employing a drunkard used-car salesman and a Mexican drug cartel. The plot was so far-fetched that even some of the Tehran regime's most ardent foes did not believe it. Revealingly, American officials suddenly stopped talking about the alleged plot. Nothing has been said about it for weeks now, almost since the moment that the alleged central Iranian American culprit, who supposedly had volunteered to "tell all," recanted anything that he might have said and pleaded innocent when he was arraigned in New York. But this first stage of the psychological warfare had already achieved its objective -- preparing the public for the propaganda that would follow.

Then came the report by Dr. Ahmed Shaheed, the United Nations special rapporteur for human rights in Iran. The report was not part of the propaganda campaign and, as expected, was rightly and harshly critical of the state of human rights in Iran, enumerating a profusion of gross violations of the rights of journalists, political activists, university students, human rights activists, women rights activists, labor activists, and others. Those who have been pushing for military attacks on Iran shed, as usual, crocodile tears for the Iranian people, a routine I examined in a July 2009 article.

Then the run-up to the latest report from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on Iran's nuclear program began. For at least two weeks before its release, there were many suggestions that Israel was very close to attacking Iran. According to the mainstream Western media, the IAEA report was going to demonstrate decisively that Tehran was working on the manufacture of nuclear weapons. It would be a "game changing" report, we were told. Never mind that alarming reports on the imminence of Iran getting its hand on nuclear weapons have been appearing since April 1984, none of which, obviously, have ever been borne out.

The IAEA report was finally released, and proved to be anything but what the media had promised. It acknowledged, once again, that there has been no diversion of nuclear materials and technology from peaceful to nonpeaceful purposes; it reported no smoking guns; it stated that there was a nuclear weapon program prior to 2003 (although it presented no evidence even for this) that ended after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, but that some research (i.e., not even development) aspects of that program might have continued, or started up again at some later date. The report was replete with such hedges as "could be," "probably," "alleged," "might be," "may be," etc. Those aspects of the report that supposedly came close to showing off a "smoking gun" were completely debunked -- demolished might be a better word -- by Gareth Porter, former IAEA inspector Robert Kelly (see also here), Robert Parry, and Seymour Hersh (see also here).

At the same time, all the talk about "Iran's threat" and possible military attacks worried many Iranians, both in the homeland and the diaspora. The Organization of Islamic Revolution Mojahedin, a leading reformist group that has been outlawed by the hardliners, issued a statement that condemned any possible military attacks on Iran, even as it condemned the Tehran regime as well, faulting it for playing a major role in creation of the crisis. Former President Mohammad Khatami said, "In the event of a war, the reformists and nonreformists will confront it together." One hundred and twenty Iranian intellectuals, journalists, political activists and others issued a statement in which they rebuked the regime for its policies and for putting Iran in danger, but also declared that they oppose military attacks on Iran under any excuse. They issued a warning to those members of the opposition in the diaspora who may be trying to make secret deals with the United States in return for its support:

The voices of protests against the policy of oppression and repression [of the people] by the Islamic Republic are rising everywhere, from inside and outside Iran. It is not appropriate for the gathering of some of the opposition to be organized with the help of the foreigners, or be driven by the interests and goals of foreign powers. There should be no secret activities behind closed doors, away from oversight of the people, and without participation of all the opposition forces that are involved in the struggle for democracy and human rights in Iran.

Another group of activists in Iran issued a statement declaring, "We do not accept war under any condition and any excuse, especially when a deeply rooted and all-encompassing social movement [to oppose dictatorship and inequality] is going on in the world and in Iran." Certain Iranian monarchists declared their opposition to military attacks on Iran, as did some Iranian communists and secular leftists; see here, here, here, here, and here.

But the statements by various groups and political figures opposing any military attack on Iran on the basis of any excuse did not put an end to the speculation. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton granted two interviews, one to the BBC and another to Voice of America, in which she strongly suggested to the opposition that if they asked the United States for help, they would receive it. She declared that the reason that the United States had not provided help to the Green Movement was that its leaders -- Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi -- did not want it (and, in fact, actively discouraged it). In essence, Clinton was encouraging some to form an alternative to the Green Movement that would forge an American alliance, because the United States recognizes that the Green Movement will not take orders from it. Of course, many monarchist factions, supporters of the Mojahedin-e Khlagh Organization, and those who have aligned themselves with the neoconservative war supporters rejected the Green Movement to begin with. But the most interesting development was that a group within the diaspora opposition that always professed its support for the Green Movement appeared to respond to Clinton's statement.

It would be a mistake, however, to believe that this group arrived at its current position advocates only after Clinton's declaration. It has been in the making for nearly two years, as I first described in a March 2010 article. Mousavi's and Karroubi's extralegal subjection to house arrest beginning in February 2011 freed this group from any pretense. Talk of supporting the leadership of Mousavi and Karroubi, and even paying lip service to it, all ended. The two were quickly forgotten by this group, as if they never existed. Whereas the people in this group protest the arrest of even the most minor figure in Iran -- as they should - they have made no effort at all to create international pressure to free the two men and their wives from house arrest. This is while, by most accounts, the two men remain extremely popular within Iran.

To justify what some members of this group advocate, a "foundation" was necessary. Efforts thus began to rewrite Iran's modern history, in order to present the United States and its role in Iran since the 1953 CIA-sponsored coup in a different light. Suddenly, members of this group began claiming that the CIA coup was not really a coup, or that it was the ayatollahs who played the most significant role in it -- it was a coup by the clerics, one of them said in a television interview. Never mind that, in April 2000, then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright expressed America's regrets for the coup.

Still others, particularly two defenders of women's rights in Iran and the man claiming that the 1953 coup was the work of the clerics, began preaching that after the end of the Cold War and globalization, such concepts as imperialism and imperialist powers that try to control and exploit the resources of developing countries -- by force if they find it necessary -- are no longer applicable. They claim that such talk is an "old discourse. Imperialism belongs to the past." This is despite the fact that the nickname of one of them in his years as a university student was "Pol Pot"; he was known for routinely accusing critics of the Soviet Union of being agents of the SAVAK, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi's dreaded security apparatus.

Another activist -- for whose courage I had the highest respect while he was in Iran-- claims that such views were held only by Iranian Marxist-Leninists. Let me just respond that I have never been a Marxist or communist of any variety, have been a proud nationalist-religious man, but firmly believe in such concepts and their relevance today. Such advocates surely know that there are many more like me in Iran with the same views, however hard he would like to pretend otherwise.

I suppose the illegal invasion of Iraq, the decade-long war in Afghanistan -- a crisis and human catastrophe that has no military solution -- U.S. support of Saudi Arabia's efforts to quash the democratic movements in Bahrain and Yemen, and other interventions represent acts of benevolence, not imperialist interventions. I suppose the United States maintains 700 military bases around the world out of sheer kindness, or as vacation spots for U.S. troops.

One advocate even questioned the right to sovereignty and independence. "Independence is valuable," he wrote, "the independence that does not become a tool for survival of dictators and fascist views.... The independence that can be supported does not challenge foreign intervention with an ideological view and double standards."

What ideology and double standards? Those who "consider the presence of Western forces [in a country like Iran or Libya] as capitalism intervention, but dream night and day about becoming [another Ernesto] Che Guevara and praise his intervention in other countries as a heroic act" [emphasis mine]. So, we are to accept the following: What Che's ragtag group did -- and whatever it did was in fact against U.S. intervention in Latin America -- was equivalent to (i) the U.S. intervention in Vietnam that led to the killing of nearly 1.4 million Vietnamese people alone, not to mention those in Laos and in Cambodia by the Pol Pot regime that were directly linked with the secret U.S. bombing there that began in 1970; (ii) sanctions on Iraq in the 1990s that led to the deaths of 500,000 Iraqi children as a result of malnutrition; (iii) the invasion of Iraq that led to the destruction of the country's infrastructure and the deaths of at least 70,000 civilians and possibly more than a million; and (iv) the intervention of the United States in Latin America and its support of military and fascist dictatorships from the beginning of the 20th century all the way to the coup in Honduras in 2009. We are also to forget about U.S.-supported coups in Guatemala, El Salvador, Argentina, Chile, Venezuela, Peru, and Uruguay, the support for fascist regimes in many of those countries and for the criminal Nicaraguan Contras in the 1980s, and the invasions of Granada and Panama. We should also forget about the involvement of the CIA in Operation Condor that led to the murders of as many as 60,000 South American political activists.

As an aside, let me remind the great equivalency's inventor of an important episode. In 1996, Lesley Stahl of CBS's 60 Minutes asked Albright, then U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, the following question regarding the sanctions on Iraq:

We have heard that half a million children have died. I mean, that is more children than [the number of people who] died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?

To which Albright responded,

I think it is a very hard choice, but the price, we think, the price is worth it.

The inventor of this equivalency declares himself the proponent of a "dynamic and modern view of sovereignty." And, to give some backbone to his claims, he accuses at the same time the true defenders of human rights -- as opposed to the ones in his group -- of being silent about the attacks of Russian forces on the people of Chechnya, or of Chinese forces on some of their own fellow citizens. First, no true defender of human rights supports those brutal attacks. Such claims by the inventor are too cliché to be taken seriously. All atrocities against human beings must be, have been, and will be condemned by the true defenders of human rights and human dignity. Second, once again, comparing, for example, Russia's war in Chechnya -- which, in the final analysis, is an internal matter -- to what the United States and its allies have been doing around the world is yet another indication that the author's claims have no foundation in history.

The same author also romanticizes the war in Libya as a "humanitarian intervention," not as a naked military intervention by Western powers that have been eager to control Libya for decades and use it as a bridge to control of Africa. It is as if when a group of people are bombarded, it really matters whether we say that the bombs were for "humanitarian intervention" or for military aggression. Never mind that the new Libyan government has already accepted construction of a sprawling military base in Cyrenaica on Libya's eastern coast. Twenty thousand NATO troops will be stationed in Libya, which will give AFRICOM, the U.S. command for African intervention, founded by the George W. Bush administration in 2006 but long unable to find a host for its headquarters on the continent, a suitably local home. These have been NATO's true plans for Libya all along. Never mind the background of the new Libyan leaders (see, for example, this interesting article) and the fact that one of them has pledged to impose sharia in Libya. And, never mind that if the world is to ever engage in truly humanitarian intervention -- not the dubious one in Libya, the naked military aggressions that are applauded by the author in question -- they must be carried out by nations whose recent histories are truly laudable, not the Western powers whose track records over the past century read like indictments.

The same people who condemned -- rightly so -- the trials of the reformist leaders in the aftermath of the 2009 Iranian presidential election as show trials, referred to the "revolutionary vigilance of the Libyan people" when they spoke on Voice of America about the murder of Gaddafi and his supporters on streets, because presumably war crimes had became "humanitarian intervention." The same people who protest the execution of even common murderers and narcotics traffickers (as do I, as an opponent of capital punishment), and the same people who told the postelection demonstrators in 2009 to avoid any violence, now allow themselves to refer to what is plainly naked military aggression as "humanitarian intervention."

It was based on such "foundations" that a group in the Iranian diaspora seemed to be receptive to what Hillary Clinton suggested. Apparently, what had happened to Libya, as well as the effective elimination of Mousavi and Karroubi from the scene, the new IAEA report and Clinton's wink lured this group into thinking that it was not a bad idea to seek American help. One asked, "What is wrong with negotiating with the U.S., getting maximum benefits for Iran, and making the least concessions?" It is a good question. However, aside from the fact that the U.S. political-military establishment is not interested per se in spreading democracy, but rather in safeguarding and expanding what it perceives as vital U.S. interests, the better questions are: (i) Who gave anyone outside Iran the mission to negotiate with the United States on behalf of the Iranian people? (ii) Even if the man who made the proclamation had been assigned that mission -- which he was not -- why does he think that he and his like-minded friends have the skill to obtain "maximum benefits for Iran [while] making the least concessions" in negotiation with a world power?

These phenomena finally culminated in the release of a statement by a group of 184 people, supposedly to oppose war on Iran. In an email to the driving force behind the statement, I said, "What you call humanitarian is what people like me call military intervention." He responded, "That is your interpretation." True, except that I can document that it is naked military aggression, but he cannot present a shred of flimsy evidence that it is "humanitarian intervention." I wrote this to him because the original draft of the statement had a paragraph which stated that "humanitarian intervention" can be justified under certain circumstances, which was removed from the version that was issued.

In my next email to him I wrote, "We [in the opposition] should be different from the Velaayat-e Faghih regime [the rule of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei] in that what we say should be precise and completely factual." I said this because, as I describe shortly, the statement is replete with inaccuracies. I told him that it should be redrafted, and to his credit he asked me to send him suggestions. But I soon realized that if my suggestions were to be addressed seriously, the statement would have to be entirely rewritten, which I thought was unlikely. For example, the statement does not even devote one full paragraph to the efforts by the neoconservatives and the war party in the United States to demonize Iran.

The statement refers to Tehran hardliners' "nuclear adventurism." Many top experts here in the United States and around the world do not believe that the hardliners want to produce nuclear weapons, but rather put themselves in a position to be able to do so, if they believe that Iran will be attacked by the United States and Israel. This is the so-called Japan model. As I have discussed here, the U.S. national intelligence estimate of November 2007 and its updated version of February 2011 actually say that Iran has not made any decision whether it wants to go ahead with production of nuclear weapons. In short, this is not adventurism, but a matter of deterrence (i.e., survival) against foreign attacks. The hardliners see that North Korea is not even threatened, simply because it has demonstrated to the world that it can make nuclear weapons, and that Iraq was invaded and occupied because the United States knew it had no such weapons. Of course, even if the hardliners were to make nuclear weapons, they are well aware that they cannot match the huge U.S. nuclear arsenal.

The statement also declares,

The new IAEA report presents evidence that indicates the determination of the [Iranian] government to deviate the nuclear program to a military path has entered a decisive step.

This is incorrect -- see the discussion of the report linked above. Even the IAEA itself speaks about a "possible" military dimension. The statement continues,

Through a hostile discourse and not cooperating with the Agency the current rulers increase day by day the possibility of military confrontation with Iran.

This is also incorrect. On what basis does the IAEA certify in each and every report on Iran that there has been no deviation of Iran's known nuclear materials, technology, and facilities from peaceful to nonpeaceful purposes? On the basis of Iran's cooperation with the IAEA. The fact is all of Iran's nuclear facilities and materials are under IAEA safeguards, and monitored and inspected on a continuous basis. The dispute between the IAEA and Iran is over the contents of a laptop that many experts believe to be forged and implementation of the Additional Protocol of the safeguards agreement, which Iran did carry out on a volunteer basis from October 2003 to February 2006, stopping only when its dossier was sent to the United Nations Security Council. I have discussed these matters numerous times, and thus will not repeat myself here.

The statement mentions the ruling group's "misleading information [to the IAEA], playing with time, negotiation for the sake of negotiation, lack of cooperation, and violation of the NPT [Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty]." The IAEA has never said that Iran has given it misleading information. Neither the IAEA nor even the United States has ever claimed that Iran has committed any violation of the NPT, which would be the case only if Iran made a nuclear bomb, helped another nation to do so, or transferred its nuclear technology to a non-IAEA member state -- none of which has happened. In my aforementioned discussion of the report, I show in detail how shallow are the claims of "lack of cooperation." Therefore, most of this statement is also incorrect. My suggestion to this group is to consult an objective expert, read the IAEA reports and all the relevant international treaties before declaring their position on Iran's nuclear program based on the mainstream media. This is not about Tehran's regime, but about having a correct reading of the facts and preventing an on Iran based on falsehood and lies.

The statement declares,

The Islamic Republic is not just a violator of the dignity and rights of the citizens of land of Iran, but also a threat against worldwide peace and stability.

I completely agree with the first part, but the second part is a word-by-word copy of what the neoconservatives and the war party in the United States and their Israeli allies have been saying for a decade, and has no basis in reality.

The statement also declares,

We believe that the skill [honar] of the forces that believe in democracy and [protecting] the national and Iranian interests is aligning the foreign pressures [on the hardliners] with the domestic struggle.

There is an international society and international public opinion, and then we have Western powers and governments. The two are not the same. Who can claim with a straight face that the invasion of Iraq, the decade-long war in Afghanistan, the interventions in Bahrain and Yemen, the sale of tens of billions of dollar worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia and the Arab dictatorships of the Persian Gulf, the delivery of bunker-buster bombs to Israel and more recently to the United Arab Emirates are all in the interest of the citizens of the United States and its NATO allies, at a time when they are struggling with collapsing economies, high unemployment, and gaping divides between the rich and the poor? So what exactly is meant by "foreign pressure"?

The statement declares,

Instead of issuing generic and definitive axioms in praise or condemnation of foreign support [of Iran's democratic movement], it is better to have a national dialogue in order to identify the prerequisites, limitations, and types of the support and the tools for overseeing it to prevent personal and factional abuse of the support by the international society, takeover [of the movement] by opportunists, and creation of an alternative by suspect groups. The path to democracy to Iran passes through reliance on the neverending power of the nation and the existence of an effective and organized leadership.

There is no question that generic statements are not useful. The signatories should practice what they preach by not issuing a generic statement like the one above. There is no question that a national dialogue among Iranians is needed. But where can this dialogue take place? Not in Iran, under present conditions. So where? Should it take place in Washington, in the corridors of power and behind closed doors? There is no question that effective leadership is needed for any movement. But who are the leaders? Are they exiles and opportunists who have no popular base of support in Iran, but present themselves as representatives, spokesmen, or advisers of Karroubi? Or are they those who have been bedfellows of the neoconservatives ever since they arrived in the United States? Or are they the people who were until recently in Iran and quiet, but now that they have arrived in Washington have suddenly become ultra-revolutionaries?

Interestingly, the same people who wrote a letter to President Obama to thank him for intervening in Libya, and the same people who refer to NATO's actions there as "humanitarian intervention," declare in the statement, "Debate about Libyazation of Iran is useless and a waste of time. Foreign support can come in a variety of ways, and the type used in Libya has no relation with the current conditions in Iran." If the debate is useless, why publish a long article about the attacks on Libya and present them as "humanitarian intervention?" Why use every opportunity to justify and support them? Who needs "theoretical discussions about Libya," as the article's author has framed it, at a time we should all be focused on what to do about the catastrophic situation in Iran? And of course, this statement does leave open the door to Libyazation of Iran, if Iran's "current conditions" change. In fact, as mentioned earlier, the statement's first draft did express something along these lines.

The statement called on Iran to temporarily suspend its uranium enrichment program and to end all military aspects of its nuclear program in general. Since at least February 2007, when I spoke at a conference on U.S.-Iranian relations at the University of California in Irvine, I have supported temporary suspension of the enrichment program. But the suspension that I support is conditional. It should be done if Iran's nuclear dossier is removed from the U.N. Security Council and returned to the IAEA, its rightful place, and the sanctions imposed on Iran -- at the minimum, those that clearly hurt only the common people -- are suspended.

After the statement was issued, the group's spokesmen began their campaign. In particular, one who used to be a communist, then a pro-Khatami reformist, then a "leader" of the call for a national referendum in Iran, then talked about using the U.S. "pickax to bring democracy to Iran," appeared everywhere to defend the statement and the U.S. military intervention in Libya. He accused the signatories of the statement signed by 120 Iranian activists of saying the same things as the Islamic Republic, forgetting that a large majority of them had spent years in the Islamic Republic's prisons, when he himself was living in the United States. In one of his most absurd statements, he demanded that the nuclear program be put to a general referendum. Although no government puts such programs to a referendum, the question is, If it is put to a referendum, how does the "nuclear expert" know that the people will reject it, and based on what scientific poll or estimation?

The response of another one of the signatories to Khatami's statement that in the event of war every Iranian will defend the country is also very illuminating. He declared that, yes, he will also defend the country, but not under the current leadership of Iran's military. I suppose he will either form his own military in a hurry, fly from Washington to Iran, and defend the nation or, "live from D.C.," he will call on the Iranian people in Iran to handle the defense.

The path to democracy in Iran does not pass through Washington, Paris, London, Brussels, and Berlin, but through Tehran, Tabriz, Mashhad, Isfahan, and Shiraz; the Alborz and Zagros Mountains; the shores of the Persian Gulf, the Sea of Oman, and the Caspian Sea; the northern forest and the central desert. The sooner Iranians understand this, the better. Many people who like me reject the Velaayat-e Faghih regime, also object to any military attack on Iran and sanctions whose real effect is felt by the common people.

The views are the author's own. For opposing views, see here and here. Cartoon caption: "Friendly Human Intervention." Follow Tehran Bureau on Facebook and Twitter.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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