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Background | Fierce Debate over Diaspora Activists' Statement

08 Dec 2011 18:10Comments
ukdownwithenglish.jpgAre signatories 'Fifth Columnists' or representatives of the new face of Iranian patriotism?

[ background ] Last month, a group of 185 Iranians in the diaspora released a statement that called on the Islamic Republic to "temporarily and conditionally suspend its uranium enrichment" and immediately cease all "military aspects of [its] nuclear program," of which the Iranian regime has persistently denied there are any. The statement (which can be read here in the original Farsi or here in an English translation) followed the report issued by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on November 8 that expressed "serious concerns regarding possible military dimensions to Iran's nuclear programme."

The statement -- whose intended "main audience is the Iranian people" in the homeland, one of its drafters, activist Ali Afshari, said in an interview with Tehran Bureau -- sparked passionate debate around the diaspora, especially passages that some readers understood to be hinting at a call for Western military intervention:

The destructive consequences of war and occupation require no explanation. But in our opinion, mere verbal and written condemnation of war and world military leaders and those who fan the flames domestically cannot prevent military aggression. [...]

A complete parting of ways of international society and the Iranian people's struggle for freedom...will encourage the world powers to choose the military option with the aim of eliminating nuclear and military institutions. [...]

[I]n the final analysis, the cause of the current international crisis is the system of the Islamic Republic in general and its extremist wing, which through its miscalculations will fan the flames of a probable war. To oppose war, one must target those in the government who create the crises.

On November 21, Al Jazeera published a fierce-toned commentary by Columbia University Professor Hamid Dabashi, in which he suggested that the statement (along with other public comments by members of the diaspora that have more explicitly advocated intervention) raised the question of when "does noble opposition to a tyrannical regime end, and treacherous collaboration with belligerent warmongering against one's own people begins." He perceived the statement as evidence of "the formation of a 'postmodern Fifth Column' that is now winking and elbowing to entice and encourage the US and Israel to invade Iran.... [W]hat they do and say is the Orwellian nightmare all over again: They issue a statement calling it 'against war', which in fact paves the way for war."

Six days later, Tehran Bureau published an opinion piece by columnist Muhammad Sahimi, a professor at the University of Southern California, that raised questions about the statement's accuracy, in particular its claims that the Islamic Republic has "deviated from the [Nuclear] Non-Proliferation Treaty" and is a "threat to world peace and stability," which he said "has no basis in reality."

Sahimi noted that 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." He objected strongly to the notion, reporting an email he sent to one of the statement's primary authors in which he wrote, "What you call humanitarian is what people like me call military intervention."

Dabashi, who may also have had access to an early draft of the statement, attacked the concept throughout his piece, as in the following passage, which commences with vociferous irony:

There is no colonialism, no imperialism, no national sovereignty -- these are all fictions that "old lefties" have made up. [...]

To crown these pieces of rare jewellery, these postmodern Fifth Columnists celebrate the idea of "humanitarian intervention". No, they insist, this is not a military strike, nor is it imperialism. It is "humanitarian intervention" -- just as the US and NATO say it is, from which sources these good folks take their cues. The link between knowledge and power has scarce been more at a gunpoint.

A response from one of the statement's signatories, author Setareh Sabety, appeared on Tehran Bureau on November 30. While she named neither Dabashi or Sahimi, she referred to their respective commentaries (to which Tehran Bureau provided links) and wrote,

Now we even have some Iranian American academics...who want to lay claim to being the intelligentsia of the opposition and still remain fashionably leftist, lecturing us on how American or Western "humanitarian intervention" is not so humanitarian. As if we didn't know! As if we are as naïve as the students who sit in their 101 classes.

We know all about Western intervention and imperialism and we frankly prefer it to our own Islamist rulers. Call me what you want -- or worse, call me a neocon -- but I am expressing the pent-up anger of many Iranians who are fed up with the empty rhetoric of the fashionable left, which refuses to come up with a new grammar for the post-imperialist world and has no clue how to digest our post-Islamist embrace of the West. [...]

The utopian promises of the Islamists and the anti-imperialists have both left us jaded. No ideological posturing will satiate our need to breathe the fresh air of everyday liberty.

Responding to a Tehran Bureau request for a comment on the controversy over the statement, one of the group's leading voices, Assistant Professor Borghan Nezami Narajabad of Rice University, replied via email:

First, let me bring to your attention two clear statements from Dabashi's article. He states that "In one way or another the Islamic Republic will develop nuclear weapons capabilities -- and there is very little that the apartheid Israeli garrison state sitting on hundreds of nuclear bombs and refusing even to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty can do about the matter." He [goes on] to state: "both the Jewish State and the Islamic Republic appear as two garrisons destined to dismantle each other -- for good".

These are precisely the reasons...why the 185 signatories of our letter worry and why they want to stop the Islamic Republic's confrontation with the world powers. I understand why Al Jazeera and its Qatari owners might be interested in an isolated Iran. I understand why they might publish an article which calls 185 of the finest Iranian activists (more than 45 of them former prisoners of conscience) with the same name that the I.R.'s leader repeatedly uses to address his opposition: "fifth column." After all, Qatar has managed to reach the highest GDP per capita in the world by exporting gas from the largest natural gas field, the South Pars, which it shares with Iran, while international isolation and numerous sanctions prevent Iran from utilizing its share. Of course it is easy for Mr. Dabashi and Qatar to promote "anti-imperialism" and "anti-zionism" when they are not paying its price.

The Iranian activists who signed our letter oppose the war and state, "To oppose war, one must target those in the government who create the crises." We demand the I.R. to curtail its confrontational approach. That is the only way to remove the sanctions and rule out the possibility of military confrontation from the horizon. Mr. Dabashi, on the other hand, doesn't hide his desire for a fatal (and possibly nuclear) confrontation between Iran and Israel. It's ironic that he doesn't at least refrain from citing Orwell when he calls us "warmonger[s]"!

[Concerning Sahimi's criticism of the statement's accuracy in regard to its description of Iran's nuclear activities], I just refer to the numerous UN security council resolutions, specially resolution 1929 (ratified in June 2010). The resolution which imposed international sanction on Iran "Affirms that Iran has so far failed to meet the requirements of the IAEA Board of Governors and to comply with resolutions 1696 (2006), 1737 (2006), 1747 (2007) and 1803 (2008)." On a separate but related subject, it is also necessary to remind ourselves that the same resolution "Decides that Iran shall not undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using ballistic missile technology", while the I.R. continues to do so. Less than two weeks ago its main man in charge of the ballistic missiles program, Major General Hassan Tehrani Moghaddam, was killed while doing experiments with ballistic missiles. [See here and here for more on the incident to which Narajabad refers.]

[Concerning Sahimi's criticism of the claim that the Islamic Republic is a present "threat to world peace and stability"], I shall say I don't know what Mr. Sahimi calls "reality", but just the recent attack on the British embassy in Tehran on Monday Nov. 29, (which was condemned unanimously by the UN Security Council) and the alleged plot against the Saudi ambassador in Washington (condemned by the UN General Assembly on Nov 18, 2011) shows that the Islamic Republic has little respect for the most basic rules of conduct in the international arena. We call such a government "a threat to world peace and stability." Iranian people have suffered from all sorts of brutalities. The crackdown of their peaceful demonstrations by the I.R. security forces in 2009 is still fresh in our minds. The burden of sanctions, which are caused by the I.R.'s "anti-imperialistic" ambitions, [is] piling up on the shoulders of [the] Iranian people. We believe that [the] Iranian people are tired of paying for the anti-imperialism bill.

On the matter of the alleged plot to assassinate Saudi Ambassador Adel al-Jubeir, Sahimi wrote a commentary for Tehran Bureau in October that raised doubts on several grounds about the U.S. Justice Department's claim that Islamic Republic officials were involved in any such plot.

Afshari, who spoke with Tehran Bureau via phone, said he believed that Dabashi had reached a "significant misunderstanding" of the statement, that his Al Jazeera commentary was replete with "baseless accusations," and that "I do not consider that article a worthy criticism. That's not any relation with our statement." While Afshari said that he viewed Sahimi's piece "considered and valuable as a criticism," he did not cite any specific points on which it had swayed him.

Turning to the statement itself, Afshari said, "In my opinion and in the perspective of the 185 signatories, the recent report of the IAEA shows that the Iranian nuclear program is converting to a military way." (See here for Sahimi's commentary on the IAEA report, in which he argues that it presents virtually no evidence of any such ongoing or recent military conversion.)

"It is important that the Iranian government shows it has proof that it has no military goals with the program," Afshari continued. "They have to take some practical steps.... If the Iranian government becomes capable of producing nuclear bombs, this leads to unnecessary instability in the region, and that's not good for world peace."

Afshari concluding by emphasizing his belief that his primary "responsibility is to prevent further hardship for the Iranian people. The sanctions are a fact on the ground. The first step is to suspend [uranium enrichment] to remove the sanctions; after that, to build confidence that there is no intention to use [Iran's nuclear material] for military purposes."

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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