Iran and the United States have an adversarial relationship that began well before the current high-profile brouhaha involving Israel, nuclear programs and sanctions. The U.S. struck first in 1953 and Iran struck back in 1979.
The U.S. was in Saddam Hussein’s corner in the Iran-Iraq War of the ’80s, but things were looking better under Iranian reformer president Mohammad Khatami until George W. Bush called out Iran as a member of the Axis of Evil in 2002.
Kourosh Ziabari is a prolific and outspoken 22-year-old Iranian writer and journalist. We asked him a few questions about U.S./Iran relations. We then asked students at The New School with Iranian ties to respond. Milano School PhD student Pooya Ghorbani, 32, who was born and raised in Tehran, shared his thoughts on Ziabari’s answers. We will ask Ziabari to continue the discussion.
Q: In the U.S., especially during election season, Iran must be labeled as a grave threat and an enemy. First of all, do you agree with that statement? Second, as the U.S. is not alone in its tough sanctions on Iran, is there any reason this statement might be justified?
Kourosh Ziabari: The fact that the U.S. statesmen and politicians, especially the hardliner Republicans always have a strong inclination to portray Iran as a serious threat to international peace and security means that they want to divert the public attention from the domestic problems and deficiencies the United States is facing. To speak frankly, I should say that the U.S. foreign policy does not work without enemies and much-liked villains.
The United States is the most indebted nation in the world and its current debt crisis is one of the major sources of concern for the country’s officials. $15 trillion is not an insignificant figure to be underestimated. At the end of September 2012, the total amount of debt held by the public equaled some 72% of the U.S. GDP. Since 2007, hundreds of commercial banks, investment banks and saving and loan associations have been taken over or merged with other financial institutions, been declared insolvent or liquidated or filed for bankruptcy. The United States is facing serious economic crisis, along with the rest of Western world, and it needs pretexts do distract attentions from the predicament it’s being immersed in.
Moreover, the United States has been facing the most troublesome and terrific social unrest in several decades when the Occupy Wall Street movement took shape and began to protest at the economic monopoly of the top 1% of the American society.
There are lots of other problems which the United States has been grappling with, and in order to escape from these problems, they need to create a horrific demon and put it before the eyes of their citizens and say, “look; this rogue state wants to develop nuclear weapons and wipe Israel off the map. We should prevent that from happening, we should stop them. They are all terrorists.”
Of course the United States has been successful in bringing together a group of hostile countries who are hell bent on destroying Iran, paralyzing its economy, hindering its scientific progress and impeding its forward movement as an emerging power in such a volatile, sensitive and unstable region as the Middle East.
There’s no single page of evidence confirming this claim that Iran poses a threat to the United States and the rest of the world. What kind of threat may Iran pose to the world? Does it have, like Israel, 300 nuclear warheads, biological weapons and an excessively funded army whose members are blind, blood-thirsty murderers? Perhaps it’s true that Iran is an enemy, because since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Iran has been only one of the few countries in the world that have overly defied Washington’s imperialism and resisted against its expansionistic policies and refused to bow down to its demands; but the allegation that Iran is a threat is simply a big lie and sheer hollow propaganda. Those who make such claims are lunatics and intentionally ignorant.
But as I mentioned before, fearmongering and spreading falsehoods are an integral part of the U.S. foreign policy. There are several reasons for that. One is that they are not the American people who really elect the U.S. President. Of course they participate in the elections and cast their vote, but the final decision will be made by the Israeli lobby, and this is something which tens of progressive thinkers, such as E. Michael Jones have testified to, by citing valid and reliable sources. Israel cannot withstand a pacifist foreign policy by the United States. Israel fervently likes that the United States to be in a constant state of altercation and acrimony with the Arab world, Iran and the other independent nations, such as those in the Non-Aligned Movement, which are intrinsically opposed to U.S. militarism and Israeli Zionism. The relationship between the U.S. government and the Zionist lobby and how this treacherous coalition works is quite complicated; but what we know for sure is that it’s Israel that is driving the United States and Europe toward animosity and hostility with Iran; otherwise, there’s no reason for the continued bitterness and belligerence between the two sides. Iranians have always been active, effective and influential members in the American society and there has been a great deal of cultural exchanges between the two nations of Iran and the United States, and this is something which Israelis cannot tolerate.
Q: Without getting into the details of the failure of Obama administration/Tehran engagement attempts, what are your biggest criticisms of Obama administration vis-a-vis Iran?
KZ: From the day President Obama took office, he ostentatiously talked of reconciliation and rapprochement with Iran. He sent flattering New Year messages to Iranians and talked of an extended hand. But what he did in practice ran counter to what he preached. He renewed the sanctions while Iranians were awaiting a goodwill gesture by him. Albeit I believe that certain conservatives in Iran also reduced the chances of diplomacy by pressuring the government of President Ahmadinejad not to engage in talks with the U.S. They consider negotiations with the U.S. a redline which should not be crossed. Otherwise Ahmadinejad had offered that Iran is ready to start talks with the United States. But Obama’s intensification of sanctions, his direct interference in Iran’s internal affairs by taking sides in the 2009 presidential elections, which created serious problems for the reformist candidate Mirhossein Mousavi and Obama’s authorization of underground operations inside Iran, including the assassination of Iran’s nuclear scientists or the cyber attacks which were vehemently launched against Iran, made Obama an unpopular and even hated personality among the Iranians.
Obama showed that he really didn’t deserve the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize. He did not condemn the flagrant killing of Iran’s nuclear scientists, while he had made a hue and cry over the allegations that Iran had plotted to kill the Saudi ambassador to Washington, Adel Al-Jubeir, in October 2011. He targeted the innocent Iranian civilians by amplifying the economic sanctions which are taking a heavy toll on the ordinary people by denying them access to medicine, foodstuff and other humanitarian goods. According to Johns Hopkins economist Prof. Steve Hanke, Iran is facing a monthly inflation rate of nearly 70 percent and this is the direct result of the unjustifiable and counterproductive sanctions that President Obama and his European allies enforced. Is this really the deportment and behavior expected of a Nobel Peace Prize laureate?
Q: What would you say the Obama administration got right in regard to Iran? Especially in comparison to Bush, who put Iran into the Axis of Evil just as our two countries were making strides with Khatami.
KZ: To Iranians, Obama was no different than Bush, except for that Obama seemed to be more eloquent and persuasive in tone. President Bush classified Iran as part of an Axis of Evil while Iran was starting to cooperate with the United States over Afghanistan. Iran had also made different political concessions including a two-year voluntary halt in uranium enrichment, but none of these confidence-building measures changed the U.S. behavior toward Iran. The United States has always been looking for a submissive and subservient Iran, especially since it helped with a coup d’etat against the democratically elected government of Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953.
You know that in the boiling region which we are living in, i.e. the Middle East, Iran has been the most pacifist country as it has not attacked any of its neighbors in the past 300 years. On the other hand, we know Israel has attacked all of the regional countries: Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Tunisia and Syria, and is continuing to oppress a defenseless people in the Occupied Palestine. So, it’s not too difficult to conclude who poses the real threat to regional peace and security. President Obama has had a disappointing and failed performance toward Iran, and I don’t think that it will be corrected.
Q: Romney criticized Obama for not doing more in support of the 2009 Green movement after the election fiasco. Do you think Obama should have done more?
KZ: I think Obama did far more than what he could have done to sabotage the 2009 presidential elections. His irresponsible and imprudent support for the Green Movement was seen by many Iranians as a direct interference in the country’s international affairs. This support played into the hands of the extremist conservatives in Iran to portray Mousavi as a pawn of the United States and a foreign agent. Many people decided not to vote for Mousavi because they thought that he was being supported by the Western governments, and I should say their support for Mousavi was abundantly reckless and unfounded. The interference made by the United States and its European allies accounts for all of the irregularities that were observed during the elections. I assume that Obama’s supporting of the Green Movement was an intentional effort aimed at crushing and denigrating the democracy movement in Iran. At that time, I, along with many Iranian journalists, voted for Mr. Mousavi, but not because the U.S. had supported him. Obama could keep silent and let the people decide their own destiny; however, in line with his predecessors, President Obama made a huge mistake and delivered a lethal blow to this freedom movement.
Q: Do you feel that Iran is a threat to Israel?
KZ: As I mentioned earlier, I don’t consider Iran a threat to Israel, because it has been Israel that has constantly threatened Iran with a military strike. Just take a look at the headlines of the past seven years, and find the threatening remarks of the Israeli officials who have been frequently talking of an imminent war against Iran. Astoundingly, the United Nations and the Security Council, which have become a laughingstock in the hands of the United States, have never condemned Israel’s hawkish war rhetoric. This means that an irresponsible and lawless member of the international community can continue to threaten a sovereign nation with the use of force in violation of the U.N. Charter, without being punished or held accountable.
Iran does not pose a threat to Israel as long as Tel Aviv does not pull the trigger. If that happens, Iran is powerful enough to give a regrettable response to the Israeli regime. Iran has made stunning progress in terms of military capability, and can use this remarkable capability as a prevailing deterrent against the ill-wishers.
POOYA GHORBANI RESPONDS
That a country is dealing with poverty, debt, crime, unemployment and a host of other problems does not necessarily mean that its entire foreign policy apparatus is designed to distract people from domestic issues. I believe the U.S. has used the same security-based discourse, in times of prosperity as well as difficulty, throughout the past century. This discourse is deeply institutionalized in the American society: national security is the one factor that politicians always use to create consensus around certain foreign, and recently even domestic, policies. In short, it’s not Iran that’s the threat; it’s the threat that’s now Iran. The “threat” actor might change, but the “threat” role will always be there.
To be fair, the ruling elite is Iran is promoting the exact same discourse by emphasizing the “enemies” and their plots for changing the regime. The Islamic Republic presents itself as the leading actor in the battle against Imperialism and Zionism, and somehow defines its identity in hostility toward the U.S. and Israel. No word is repeated by the Supreme Leader more than “enemies.” But a very important point should be considered here: this is only the opinion that is publicized by the ruling elite, so we cannot view it as an institutional belief within the Iranian society. In other words, the cleavage between the authorities and the masses in Iran makes it hard to judge how much support for those views actually exists among Iranians.
Ziabari oversimplifies the issue of negotiations with the U.S. in Iran by mentioning that President Ahmadinejad was willing to proceed but “some hardliners” didn’t let him. Decision-making about such an important issue (as I mentioned, relations with the U.S. is vital to the existence of the Islamic Republic) is monopolized by Supreme Leader Khamanei and the highest-ranked authorities. It’s not something that the Ahmadinejad or some hardliners could decide. Ziabari also draws a reductionist picture of the 2009 elections by accusing the U.S. of supporting one of the candidates. First of all, there is no evidence for such claim, and second, his argument is only valid if the validity of the elections were not in question. Millions of 2009 voters still believe that the elections were stolen by the authorities and did not reflect the public’s real vote. The Islamic Republic chose to engage in physical suppression of the opposition voters, instead of clearing up the doubts about the election results. Simply referring to the “facts” publicized by on Iranian television doesn’t help to prove an argument; there are a lot of nuances that Ziabari decides to ignore.
In my view, what’s fundamentally wrong with Obama’s (and any other president of the U.S. for that matter) is the mentality that believes 1) their view of freedom, rights and governance is the only possible interpretation of those concepts; 2) the eventual goal of “democracy” is what people of the world are or should be striving to reach; and 3) it’s the responsibility of “advanced” nations to help others get there sooner. Obama shares that philosophy with almost any other president in the U.S., and that’s why Mitt Romney doesn’t look that much different from Obama to many non-Americans, including Iranian citizens. I believe peoples and societies should contest that hegemony and come up with their own definitions of freedom, rights and governance.
I agree with Ziabari in a sense that the U.S. is the grandmaster of double standards. It is not consistent even within its own framework that I described. Despite Washington’s rhetoric about fundamental rights, U.S. foreign policy depends on the foreign actor. A public uprising in one country is supported by the U.S. as a “democratic movement,” while the exact same thing in another country is considered terrorism. Such inconsistent conceptions led to the sanctions against Iran, which are based on the security-based narrative being publicized by Israel and the U.S., and are naïvely assumed to force the Islamic Republic to say: OK, we lost! Let’s drop the nuclear program and be friends now! How silly is it to expect the sanctioned country to start building “trust”? How do we expect anyone to buy the U.S.’s argument against a nuclear Iran, when Pakistan, India and Israel are all nuclear armed and are among America’s best allies? What’s so different about Iran? And how legitimate is punishing an entire nation, destroying its human infrastructure and making masses’ lives miserable on the basis of a highly controversial accusation of the government? This of course doesn’t mean that applying double standards is exclusive to the U.S.—actually, it shares that too with the Islamic Republic.
Regarding Obama and the post-election movement in Iran in 2009, I’d buy Mitt Romney’s critique of Obama’s passivity if Romney had the same objections about other movements in other countries as well (Bahrain, Saudi Arabia or Myanmar being examples). There are certain countries in which any kind of movement against the government is favored by the U.S., simply because they’re not good friends. What Romney and many others call for is to replace enemies with friends through manipulation, intervention and supporting oppositions. While liberals in the U.S. try to pursue this goal in more nuanced and sophisticated ways than conservatives, they both are equally removed from the real concerns of the Iranian protesters. I don’t see the slightest reason why the U.S. president should support either side in the 2009 post-election tensions in Iran: let peoples and societies come up with their own definitions of freedom and rights, earn them their own way and offer their experiences to the world.