In light of hypo’s claim that ‘it’s all about the oil’ in Iraq, let me offer a quote from Postel’s book ‘Reading Legitimation Crisis in Tehran‘ (the book Chris doesn’t need to read).
The picture gets further complicated, and the Left gets further flummoxed, over the role of Empire in the Iranian context. The memory of the 1953 coup burns furiously in the minds of many Iranians to this day. Because anti-imperialism is our primary conceptual organizing principle, leftists are of course highly attuned to such sentiments. Particularly in this era of Empire fever and regime-change mania, we reflexively and viscerally oppose US interference in other countries – and understandably so. Anti-imperialist pronouncements coming out of Iran thus have a certain resonance for many leftists. The supreme cleric Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has characterized the students as “American mercenaries.” As the Middle East scholar Juan Cole points out, that kind of accusation “has resonance in a country where US conspiracies to change the government – like the 1953 CIA coup – have actually succeeded.” (It should be recalled, however, that the Islamists deploy the 1953 coup in bad faith: not only did they oppose Iranian president Mohammad Mossadegh for his secularism and liberalism; they even had their own plans to take him out. And after taking power in 1979, they obliterated the Mossadeghi National Front Party. This little footnote has largely been forgotten but is hugely relevant to the present situation.)
The problem is that denunciations of US Empire in Iran today are the rhetorical dominion of the Right, not the Left. It is the reactionary clergy, not the students, who wield the idiom of anti-imperialism. Regime hard-liners “legitimate their suppression of the students,” Brecher points out, “as necessary to guard against ‘foreign forces”‘; the mullahs denounced the awarding of the Nobel Prize to Shirin Ebadi as “the result of the cultural hegemony of western civilization,” a tool “intended to serve the interests of colonialism and the decadent world.” This kind of talk can run an interference pattern on the ideological compasses of many leftists.
In contrast, for students, feminists, human rights activists, and dissidents agitating for pluralism and democracy in Iran today, opposition to US imperialism is not the central issue. The student movement’s principal demand, as Brecher notes, is “to eliminate the power of the self-perpetuating theocratic elite” over the Iranian state. A simple stance of “hands off Iran,” end of discussion, is not what those struggling for change in Iran need from progressives around the world. Of course we should be steadfast in opposing any US military intervention in Iran – that’s the easy part. But it’s not the end of the discussion. Iran is, as the Iranian anthropologist Ziba Mir-Hossein puts it, “a state at war with itself.” Progressives everywhere should take sides in that war and actively support the forces of democracy, feminism, pluralism, human rights, and freedom of expression.
It’s not that the students and other reformers in Iran are pro-imperialist. Quite the contrary. Ebadi, for example, has made it perfectly clear that she opposes US military intervention, advocating instead a nonviolent, internal transformation of Iranian society. But US imperialism is simply not the central issue for them – and this, I think, is a stumbling block for many American leftists, because it is the central issue for us. We’re better at making sense of situations in which the US Empire is the foe and building our solidarity with other people around that. That was the case in Guatemala – as it was in Indochina, Chile, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and East Timor.
But that model simply doesn’t apply to situations in which the struggles of oppressed groups are not aimed directly against American imperialism. And that’s a serious blind spot. It creates myopia on the part of American leftists. Anti-imperialism can turn into a kind of tunnel vision, its own form of fundamentalism. Cases that fall outside its scheme simply get left out, and our solidarity with struggles around the world is determined by George Bush, rather than our principles.