In one of its worst foreign policy moves ever, the United States government in 1954 had the CIA organize a coup against the democratically elected regime of Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran. At the time, US oil companies came into control of formerly Anglo-Iranian Oil which had been nationalized by Mossadegh. The racist rumor has since arisen particularly among neoconservatives that there is no affection for democracy in the Middle East. But the U.S. overthrew that democracy (for illustrations of the emptiness of the so-called democratic peace hypothesis with reference to the United States government’s interventions against non-white democracies, see my Must Global Politics Constrain Democracy?, introduction, and the last half of “Rights as the Center of Democratization” here). The US installed and armed the Shah whose “white revolution” made dissent a crime. Students, especially students abroad, were often far to the left. But the revolution against the Shah was led by Ayatollah Khomeini and substituted for the Shah’s American-sponsored repression religious repression particularly against leftists and democrats. In this context, slogans about the American Satan had a mass resonance. The 1979 taking of the hostages at the American Embassy in Iran reflected the bitter history of violent American intervention against the Iranian people.
Americans have learned from the mainstream – corporate controlled press – that Iran is a dangerous enemy pursuing nuclear weapons. Iranians have learned that United States is a dangerous interventionary power with one interest – oil and military bases. A previous government in Iran (the Khatami government) helped the US in Afghanistan and offered the Bush administration a deal to settle differences, including over Israel. The Bush-Cheney administration ignored them. Their aim was to invade Iran after invading Iraq. Their aggression in Iraq bogged down, however, and a financial collapse headed off even Cheney’s monomaniacal aim to bomb Natanz (originally with nuclear weapons called “bunker busters” but with a yield greater than Hiroshima and Nagasaki 50 kilometers form Teheran). It is difficult to see how the Middle East could have been saved from general conflagration or the world – as a place inhabitable by billions of humans – could have in the medium run survived such an American attack. We were very lucky to have avoided it. Still, some neoconservatives with something like this point of view, for instance Dennis Ross, lurk in the shadows even in the current administration.
In this context, Obama has revived negotiations with the Iranian regime as the center of American foreign policy. He has recognized that Iran is entitled to peaceful development of nuclear power. He has taken steps to deal with Palestine, including his transformatory speech in Cairo here. Faced with the current unfolding democratic uprising, he has wisely spoken against the repression but refrained from all out support of the demonstrators. The U.S. government’s support, given the context, is one which would enable Khamanei and Ahmenidinijad to claim that the mass democratic movement is US-sponsored, and try to rally deserved anti-U.S, sentiment to try to isolate and suppress it.
The Obama election in the U.S. has also shown, quite amazingly the recuperative powers of democracy (the 2004 American Presidential election was stolen perhaps nearly as grotesquely as the 2009 Iranian one – the exit polls, which have not been wrong in Presidential elections, showed this dramatically and the subsequent attempts by the establishment to debunk exit polling rested on deliberately suppressing the detailled evidence from the exit polling and were fatuous). Obama’s election is an advertisement for freedom in a repressive regime, like the Iranian one, and many people there probably have a favorable attitude toward the comparative freedom in the United States, One should introduce qualifications here: American capitalism has harmed Iran (and the Middle East more generally), and Obama is President of the Empire. Even so, Obama has already made great changes in US policy and would certainly be receptive to a new regime if the mass democratic uprising ultimately succeeds in creating one.
The demonstrations of seas of people, the hundreds of thousands, who braved the murderous repression of the basiji (the thugs of the regime who have murdered at least 13 people and probably many more) are inspiring. Andrew Sullivan who has blogged on this uprising for the last week has done an enormous public service in allowing the voices of the demonstrators, over twitter and otherwise, to be heard. The green revolution, a real popular explosion against the stealing of the election, has the possibility of bringing down the regime and has already altered the way ordinary Iranians are seen in the bigoted West. It is very hard to bomb people – and kill large numbers of civilians and, counterproductively, strengthen the reactionaries – when you have just seen these same people protesting against great odds. The movement against the stolen election in Iran parallels the anti-Iraq War movement in the United States and the world. That movement did not succeed but did limit “shock and awe” (the original Pentagon proposal was to make of Baghdad a “Nagasaki”). But the greatest anti-war movement before a war in all of history did not stop the war. Hopefully, the Iranian democratic uprising will actually bring down the regime.
But the American government has difficulty keeping its hands out of other people’s affairs (a criticial point long made by realists and Marxists – see Must Global Politics Constrain Democracy?, ch. 3. In the latter, I recommend that democratic regimes restrict so-called intelligence activities to knowledge-gathering and eschew all covert acts of sabotage including nonviolent ones). Bush already licensed aggression – American covert activities in Iran to bring down the regime. Some of these activities probably involved sabotage and murder “below the radar”of American media. More strikingly, American administrations have supported nonviolence in the Ukraine and Serbia; they have translated Gene Sharp’s pamphlet “From Dictatorship to Democracy” into 20 languages, In the case of Serbia, a young engineering student and activist named Slobo was brought to the Fletcher School at Tufts on a fellowship and later sent on a speaking tour organized from there which included the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver (I helped sponsor the event). He spoke of being flown out of Serbia to Budapest where he met at a fancy hotel with Major-General Helvey, an old, balding man, sweating, in a fancy suit with shiny shoes. When I saw him, Slobo recounted, I did not feel so good. But then the man handed him Sharp’s pamphlet which Slobo liked. Helvey’s visit was sponsored by the International Republican Instiute (an arm of the US government headed by John McCain); he is a Defense Intelligence Agency operative and formerly an operative of the Albert Einstein Institute headed by Sharp). Slobo helped bring these pamphlets as well as mass produced t-shirts and signs into Serbia. Such uniform signs helped limit the diversity of democratic protest and substitute, as it were, an externally approved message. (the Iranian demonstrations have greater diversity). Nonetheless, amass nonviolent movement brought down Milosevic.
That was a great event. But the shaping of the movement helped limit its democratic character, particularly a vibrant discussion from below, of what to do with power. Slobo was happy enough to comment on how to bring down Hugo Chavez – something about producing t-shirts with the right slogan. The fact that Chavez had mass support among the poor and had used oil revenues to help ordinary people and that the US tried to overthrow him in the 2002 coup escaped him (That Chavez has self-aggrandizing, anti-democratic ideas is also true, but not the main point); if ordinary people support a regime, no serious nonviolent movement will occur. Slobo’s idea of an enemy dictatorship is what the U.S. government calls an enemy dictatorship. He has tactical ideas but not a radical vision. He was one leader of the movement from below, but undoubtedly there were others who might have entertained more interesting, diverse and radical ideas.
One wonders about the subterranean influences of the United States in Iran. Has Obama called off covert activities? To what extent are such activities in support of the nonviolent protest? Sharp has written intelligently of nonviolent protest in the past, but his pamphlet gives a long list of tactics that is mechanical and dead (a couple of years ago, while not opposing US bombing of Iran which would have strengthened the regime and negated the influence of nonviolent protest against it, Sharp listed some 350 hits on his pamphlet from Iran on the web). The pamphlet does not envision or even gesture at the unusual circumstances –the revolutionary situations – which make mass mass nonviolence possible and successful. Consider the demonstration of the mothers of the disappeared on the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires in Argentina. Precisely the patriarchy of the murderous dictatorship made it impossible for them to strike at this movement. But people could rally to their cause. The influence of the mothers’ protest spread rapidly, and brought down the regime. In Iran, it was the sudden development of a democratic movement around Mossavi through his role in 6 debates among the Presidential candidates. The stealing of the election was the event that brought hundreds of thousands into the streets in many cities. It spurred protest from many sections of the population (many are hurt economically under Ahmenidinijad). It taught the world the strength of democratic sentiment and popular protest in Iran. It is an inspiring, international event. Perhaps Obama can restrain the US covert agencies from getting in the way of its unfolding.