jimsleeper.com » Columns on Iran that foresaw what neo-cons didn’t see coming here

Columns on Iran that foresaw what neo-cons didn’t see coming here

In 2009, one of my former Yale students, Cameron Abadi (now, in 2022, deputy editor at Foreign Policy magazine), was in his parents’ native Tehran, writing about the emergence of that year’s “Green Revolution” against the theocratic regime. The uprising was suppressed, but I wrote a few columns relaying Cameron’s brave observations about its prescience, and I saw in its perils some portents of what is becoming more likely right here in the U.S.

Cameron Abadi, back then

What 24 hrs in Tehran Will Tell

By Jim Sleeper – June 17, 2009 

From a temporarily secure and undisclosed location (when not in the streets), a former student of mine who’s freelancing in Tehran for a European newspaper and two online publications is telling the untold story behind the opposition demonstrations. I won’t light up his name by linking him right now, but here’s his find: Many Iranians who voted for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad voluntarily and with a clear conscience are deciding that he used them to consolidate power in ways they don’t like.

Yes, Ahmadinejad had legitimate electoral support. But where is it now? The answer, almost literally, is blowin’ in the wind: The next 24 hours should tell whether the regime can suppress the rising anger. The clerks and teachers my former student describes aren’t all taking to the streets; they’re asking neighbors with friends in the thuggish militia, “Don’t the Basij have parents, don’t they have children?”

Such appeals to decency from Ahmadenijad voters matter in nationalistic, “revolutionary” Iran. Yes, the opposition is more classically liberal, or civic-republican, than it is revolutionary, let alone “progressive” as many Americans use that term. It says it wants to redeem the Islamic revolution that overthrew the Shah. The American Revolution was conservative in some of the ways the current Iranian opposition is: It was a civic-republican revolution, not as radically democratic as the French Revolution (or as President Sarkozy’s rhetoric about Tehran). It sought to confirm as many things as it overthrew. 

Never mind that the usual infestation of neocon revolver journalists and provocateurs, such as Elliott Abrams,Daniele Pletka, and Robert “Boom Boom” Kagan, are touting the opposition because they want it to lose. Partly that’s because it’s in their nature: Most of the causes that they attach themselves to lose, in ways and for reasons the writer Walter Benjamin described in the 1930s, but I’ll save that for another time. The main reason the neocons are jumping up and down in unison this time is that they want Iranians’ opposition to the theocracy to experience a glorious defeat (which the neo-cons’ support for the democratic insurgency helps to ensure) that will darken the current regime as a foil for neocons’ latest, most stupid war-mongering.

Ignore them. The current regime is odious, but who was defending it? Anyone in America with power, and not just a big mouth, should back the opposition to it without the scorching rhetoric of “Boom Boom” and John McCain as a prelude to war — and without searching for an Iranian Ahmed Chalabi to awaken what we laughingly call “the intelligence community.” Anyone with power has to behave moderately, as Obama is doing. At this stage, change really will have to come from within the Iranian people, in ways my former student in Tehran is describing and in ways that neocons, creatures that they are of the national-security state, viscerally can’t understand. 

The regime behind the Iranian elections was anticipated by Edward Gibbon, who wrote that when Augustus, the Roman emperor who posed as a savior of the republic, “framed the artful system of Imperial authority, his moderation was inspired by his fears. He wished to deceive the people by an image of civil liberty, and the armies by an image of civil government… In the election of the magistrates, the people, during the reign of Augustus, were permitted to expose all the inconveniences of a wild democracy. That artful prince, instead of [showing] the least symptom of impatience, humbly solicited their [votes] for himself, for his friends and scrupulously practiced all the duties of an ordinary candidate…” 

Beneath the smiles, of course, was the iron fist. I don’t know whether the Iranian Augustus who tried to play the “wild democracy” card in Tehran is the smiling Ayatollah Ali Khamenei or the smiling Ahmadinejad, or both, as the latter moves to try to “share” power with the former. But while the crackdown may silence democratic voices, millions of Iranians have made irreversibly clear they aren’t settling for a grinning Augustus. The courage, pride and discipline of these crowds – and, I must add, their sheer civility — is palpable partly because most Iranians are “conservative” and wise in the sense that, far from challenging religion, they are drawing on it and claiming to purify it, as the American civil-rights movement did. 

The operative principle here, as in the American South, Gandhi’s India, and even in Poland in 1989, is that although religion is dangerous and odious whenever it tries to rule in states, it is indispensable as an inspiration to the body politic, especially in an insurgency against great odds. Without it, republics often falter, but when religion oversteps, they are lost. 

In economics, most demonstrators in Tehran aren’t Marxists any more than they’re atheists. Nor, really, are they ardent capitalists. Right now, the economic crisis has been overshadowed by something more basic. While before the election, Iranians spent a lot of time and energy debating the country’s rate of inflation and alternative names for the Persian Gulf, my student notes, “That’s forgotten now. The fight for more elemental aspects of political life has superseded the issues of the election; in the streets there is a desire to name simple facts and to call them such and treat them such: facts like election ballots, facts like gun shots fired at innocent bystanders. The demonstrators are bound together by their desire for truth.” 

Call it God’s truth, or natural law, or human rights: This movement of its ordinary bearers may be asphyxiated tonight or tomorrow by the crackdown that keeps me from mentioning my former student’s name. Or it could be perverted and derailed, as it was in Iraq, by its would-be neocon champions. But something irreversible and, I think, more constructive, has happened, and it will be vindicated, even if not tonight or tomorrow.


Now, the Crackdown

By Jim Sleeper – June 19, 2009

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s speech gives a virtual green light to the thuggish — and massive — Basij militia. It also raises the “moral” and Iranian constitutional ante on future demonstrations. From now on, demonstrators aren’t legitimately petitioning for redress of grievances. They’re civil disobedients – and, to a dishearteningly hate-filled part of Iranian society, they’re something worse. 

In civil-disobedience, you break a law non-violently and accept the legal punishment to show that it’s the unjust law that has betrayed the constitution, not your breaking that bad law publicly in order to defend the very rule of law. That strategy is risky enough in the U.S., but in Iran, it’s inconceivable. Even just demonstrating peacefully will now demand more moral and physical courage than it did yesterday, or than civil disobedience usually does here. It will be cast as disobedience to the constitution itself – to the “Supreme Leader.” Watch the first 20 seconds of his speech and see his listeners’ quintessentially fascist salutes, and you know what’s coming.

But consider that the U.S. hasn’t always been better, and that some Americans still aren’t. Here in America, in what even Clarence Thomas called “the totalitarian regime of segregation,” peaceful civil-rights marchers were met with fire hoses, police dogs, and murder — but also with a new birth of open journalism and a federal government that began to back up them up. 

Many Republicans still don’t get this. At their 2008 convention, the “Yoo Es Ay! Yoo Es Ay!” chanters responded to their leaders almost as the Ayatollah’s listeners have. Such people are everywhere, even next to you at work. You have to work on them, bit by bit, as has been happening in Iran. Republicans and neocons who saw nothing wrong in their party’s 2008 speeches and crowds are now piously praising the Tehran demonstrators. But in their hearts, neocon supporters of the street marchers want the regime to crush them, because that would justify another war. They’ve forgotten that the last one, in Iraq, boosted the Iranian mullahs’ power. Even the neocon rhetoric is doing that again right now; the regime in Iran is capitalizing on it. 

The regime is odious and should be overthrown. Even many Ahmadenijad voters now see this, but an American or Israeli military reaction would reverse those perceptions and boost the regime. Liberation must come somehow from the brave, disciplined, civilized Iranians we’ve been watching, as it did come in India, South Africa, and Eastern Europe. They need both more and less than bellicose American rhetoric and war-mongering, and as John Kerry insisted

So why do the war mongers keep falling into the trap of thinking that the time for intervention is at hand? A hint comes from the recovering neocon David Brooks, who is skirting that trap this time: “The core lesson of these events is that the Iranian regime is fragile at the core. Like all autocratic regimes, it has become rigid, paranoid, insular, insecure, impulsive, clumsy and illegitimate. The people running the regime know it, which is why the Revolutionary Guard is seeking to consolidate power into a small, rigid, insulated circle. The Iranians on the streets know it. The world knows it….. “

“The nations of the West will have to come up with multi-track policies that not only confront Iran on specific issues, but also try to undermine the regime itself. This approach is like Ronald Reagan’s policy toward the Soviet Union, and it is no simple thing. It doesn’t mean you don’t talk to the regime; Reagan talked to the Soviets. But it does mean you pursue many roads at once. 

“There is no formula for undermining a decrepit regime. And there are no circumstances in which the United States has been able to peacefully play a leading role in another nation’s revolution. But there are many tools this nation has used to support indigenous democrats: independent media, technical advice, economic and cultural sanctions, presidential visits for key dissidents, the unapologetic embrace of democratic values, the unapologetic condemnation of the regime’s barbarities.” 

Brooks also knows, but stops short of saying, that Republicans and neocons just don’t get this. They hated Reagan’s negotiations with Gorbachev. And George W. Bush, for whom Brooks campaigned ardently, refused to talk to Iran. As early as 2006 Brooks could have rewritten one of his paragraphs above to read: “The core lesson of these events is that the Republican majority is fragile at the core. Like all autocratic regimes, it has become rigid, paranoid, insular, insecure, impulsive, clumsy and illegitimate. The people running the regime know it, which is why the Dick Cheney, Karl Rove, and Alberto Gonzales are seeking to consolidate power into a small, rigid, insulated circle. Americans on the streets know it. The world knows it…..” 

The world now is rightly, breathlessly focused not on Republicans but on Iran, as it was on Eastern Europe twenty years ago. Now, as then, our war-mongers are trying to insinuate themselves into the action. The better strategies are the ones that Brooks mentions but that the party of his youth and early middle-age hasn’t learned any better than has the audience cheering the Ayatollah. The next 24 hours may tell whether the rest of Iran can stand up to them and the terrifying division in the country which their saluting represents.

Meanwhile, let’s face down their American counterparts and find other ways to support the brave democrats of Iran.  


It Couldn’t Happen Here… Could It?


By Jim Sleeper – June 26, 2009

 On a quiet street in Tehran one night last week, the Iranian-American writer Cameron Abadi was stopped by a teenaged Basij militia member. The youth, still growing his first beard but armed and quite full of himself, demanded in rough provincial dialect that Abadi exhale enough to show if he’d been drinking. 

Abadi, clean, was told to move on. But if the boy had had the wit to ply him with a few questions, he might then have cried, “Take him in!” and doomed this New York-born-and-bred Yale graduate. Unbeknownst to Abadi, a colleague from a website he was writing for had just been arrested at the airport trying to leave.

Abadi, lucky a second time two days ago, got a Turkish Airlines flight via Istanbul to Dusseldorf, where he caught a train to Berlin. Even as the regime was letting the streets fill with peaceful citizens by day, it was sowing the menace Abadi faced by night. Iranians were shocked because Tehran has so little street crime – and so few cops — that people walk at all hours without looking over their shoulders. It’s a bit like New York City 70 years ago, when the novelist Howard Fast and a girlfriend slept in Central Park on hot summer nights to escape moral strictures as stifling as their airless apartments. They feared not muggers but an occasional police officer. 

In Tehran now, too, the main public menace is the state, but the Iranian state teaches oppressed, angry young men to cling to guns and God — both dispensed by the state itself, including by that senior boy and ex-traffic engineer, Mahmoud Ahmadenijad. Yet some U.S. neocons and lefties seem to like having him around. Neoconservatives have been gloating about him. “See? We warned you,” they say, jabbing at silly liberal moralists, who’ve temporized about Ahmadenijad because they’ve fixed their righteous fury on Israel and admire or excuse its would-be annihilators, Hamas and Hezbollah, which are funded by fellow theocrats in Iran.

 Silly though some liberals indeed are (Don’t get me started!), neocons have become the other side of the coin, recognizing in Ahmadenijad a perfect foil for their embrace of an American political party that engages in chillingly similar preachments and practices. Sound fantastical? We’ve had Blackwater mercenaries patrolling the streets of New Orleans on contract to the federal government. We’ve had torture protocols that turn honorable conservatives’ stomachs. We’ve had unconstitutional surveillance, renditions, and inexplicable detentions. We’ve had predatory capitalists unleashed to crush the hopes, health care, and home-ownership prospects of millions of heartbroken poor and lower-middle class Americans. As those Americans become desperate and angry, we have Fox News showing them day and night whom to hate and make war on. We even have pastors telling parishioners to bring guns to church, and Texas legislators working to let University of Texas students do likewise in classrooms. 

And we have neo-cons like Bill Kristol, who discovered Sarah Palin while taking a Weekly Standard fund-raising cruise along the coast of Alaska and commended her to John “Bomb-bomb-bomb, Bomb-bomb Iran” McCain. At the 2008 Republican convention, Kristol and other neo-con war-mongers found themselves staring into a horror-house mirror of the Basij-style populism that they’d helped, semi-wittingly, to foment. 

Neocons saw nothing wrong because, like their preternaturally insecure forebears in Europe, they’d made themselves creatures of the national-security and corporate state by becoming its apologists, strategists, myth-spinners, and flag wavers and thinking that, at last, they’d arrived. As in France in the 19th century and the Kaiserreich and Austria-Hungary in the 20th, neocon creatures of the state always wake up only when their “national greatness” mythmaking and yahoo populism have left them high and dry, hated by the very people they thought they were rousing.

It will happen to them here, too — all the more quickly if, as seems increasingly likely to Paul Krugman, the Obama administration fails to undo the lasting, scarring, damage that neocons and their patrons have already done to people’s hopes, health, and homes. This month, Iranians — encouraged, undoubtedly, by our 2008 election and by Obama’s address to them and his speech in Cairo — tried to have their own Obama moment.

“It’s hard right now to remember,” Abadi writes poignantly, “that before dread settled over the country, before violence and fraud tore the threads that bound Iranian society together, the Islamic Republic enjoyed several weeks of unprecedented vibrancy. There was, of course, the joyous green-clad tidal wave that swept over Tehran in the days prior to the vote. But the streets of the capital were also home to many earnest, if mundane, displays of democracy….. in a spirit of generosity and optimism…. 

“[These Iranian democrats] were college-age volunteers who canvassed undecided voters,” Abadi continues. “They were strangers who staged impromptu public debates on street corners. They were tens of millions who waited long hours in the summer heat to cast their ballots. And they were all Iranians who wanted their voices heard. It was the feeling that their devotion had been betrayed, that their claim to fairness had been violated that sent Iranians onto the streets.” 

There, they were met by something like what Dick Cheney and his neo-conservative cheerleaders have tried to foster right here. Isn’t it time we sensed what’s at stake and what kind of American civic-republican (and even religious) energy it will take to make Obama deal wisely with the thugatollahs and those in our midst who count on them as backstops or as foils? 

‘Loose Lips’ Biden Strikes Again

By Jim Sleeper – July 5, 2009

If anyone abetted Iranians’ brave, breathtaking defiance of the anti-republican rot in the “Islamic Republic” of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei last month, it was Barack Obama.

George W. Bush had strengthened that regime by offending Iranians’ national pride, but Obama challenged regime with his March 19 Persian New Year speech and his June 4 Cairo speech eight days before Iran’s elections. “The United States wants the Islamic Republic of Iran to take its rightful place in the community of nations,” he said on March 19, “but it comes with real responsibilities, and that place cannot be reached through terror or arms, but rather through peaceful actions that demonstrate the true greatness of the Iranian people and civilization.” 

Enough Iranians took him up on this to remind the world that sometimes America’s strength lies more in its civic depth than in its armed might. As the Turkish scholar Ibrahim Kalin put it, “People see in [Obama – and, I’d add, in our 2008 election] something they would like to see in their own leaders, and that, in itself, creates huge expectations.” Those expectations are still rising: Yesterday, major Iranian clerics called the election and the regime “illegitimate.” 

But now comes Vice President Joe Biden, raising different expectations. Today on ABC’s “This Week,” Obama’s vice president called the president’s responses to Iran “pitch-perfect” — but then he added that we wouldn’t block an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear program. “Israel can determine for itself — it’s a sovereign nation — what’s in their interest and what they decide to do relative to Iran and anyone else,” he said, answering a question from George Stephanopoulos. These are truisms, but why speak them at all, if that will help the regime in Iran to rally support, as Bush & Co. helped it to do? 

You can read the standard neocon line on this sort of diplomatic dilemma in a New Republic post by Nader Mousavizadeh, of the International Institute for Strategic Studies. He sounds like Ahmed Chalabi, the would-be liberator of Iraq who had been in exile a bit too long to be credible in his claims about what a stronger American hand would accomplish. Mousavizadeh, who makes sure to inform us that his grandfather was a justice of the Iranian Supreme Court under the Shah, does not bring himself to say what, exactly, Obama should do to take a stronger hand, but he accuses him of having been rolled by the thugatollahs.

That is also being said by many others who’ve shown us repeatedly and disastrously that they don’t really understand American strengths or how to manage them. The question is why Biden threw them a crumb and Khamenei a new lease on life. For a much richer, more nuanced report on what is actually happening inside Iran now and on how and how not to respond to these developments, read Mahmood Delkasteh in OpenDemocracy

I can’t vouch for Delkasteh’s claim to have participated in the 1979 revolution, but his stunning piece also links an Open Democracy symposium and other commentaries published there on Iran that are among the very best I’ve found. Here is a website that has earned its distinction because its contributors believe in democracy intelligently, not ideologically, opportunistically, or in terms of Wilsonian power-wielding that so often asphyxiates the democratic power it claims to promote. 

Biden is an experienced foreign-policy operator who should understand when to hint at the military option and when not. But maybe he’s not yet used to being Vice President of the United States rather than one of a hundred senators. Someone should have him read Delkasteh before he opens his mouth again on Iran.