The Middle East is experiencing hard and complicated times. Tunisia and Egypt have already witnessed all-out revolutions which put an end to the decades-long tyranny of the U.S.-backed dictators while Libya, Bahrain and Yemen are engulfed in what might be called unambiguous civil wars. The world is anxiously pursuing the developments in the region. The United States, Israel and their European allies have so far exhibited a hypocritical reaction by supporting the suppression of anti-regime protesters in Bahrain, fomenting unrest in Syria and supporting military adventure in Libya. To the U.S. and Europe, the revolutions of Tunisia and Egypt have been nothing but a fait accompli. They had no option but to laud the popular uprising of the people there. From the other side, Iran has officially joined the nuclear club and put on stream its first nuclear power plant, further complicating its blurred relations with the West.
In order to investigate the recent developments in the Middle East and the Iran-West relations, I interviewed Richard Javad Heydarian, an Iranian author and political commentator living in Manila. Richard’s articles have appeared on Foreign Policy in Focus, Alternet, Tehran Times, Counterpunch, Antiwar.com, Iran Review and Asia Times Online.
In this interview, we discussed the Arab Spring and its implications for the U.S. and Iran, the future of Iran-West relations, Western media’s black propaganda against Iran and the duplicity of the United States concerning the human rights issue.
Kourosh Ziabari: For my first question, I would like to ask you about the recent revolutions in the Middle East and their implications for the U.S. and Iran. The Western states have accused Iran of interference in the internal affairs of the regional countries. Aren’t these claims hypocritical and duplicitous? We all know that the Saudi troops launched a military campaign in Bahrain with the all-out support of the United States to save the regime of Al Khalifa from the rage of the revolutionary people. We also know that Bahrain is host to the U.S. Fifth Fleet and considered to be a strategic ally of Washington in the Persian Gulf. It seems that it was the United States, and not Iran, that interfered in the internal affairs of the Middle East nations undergoing political developments. What’s your take on that?
Richard Javad Heydarian: First of all, I think most analysts, including myself, were surprised by the depth and scope of protests, which have engulfed much of the Arab world, but the more surprising thing was how this entire “transnational” popular movement started in a relatively open and integrated Arab country such as Tunisia. Nonetheless, when one digs deeper it is very clear that structural conditions for revolutionary upheavals were always there: poor economic performance, endemic unemployment and poverty, glaring inequality; state repression, absence of competitive elections; hollowing out of productive industries, lack of genuine developmental policies; and increasingly unpopular foreign policies. No region is completely immune to these challenges, but the Arab world has been facing a uniquely intense set of social and economic challenges. So one could argue that these uprisings were long in the making and perhaps even inevitable. Moreover, looking at protests and social movements in recent years, one could say that the secular trends towards a revolutionary upheaval were definitely there. The uprisings are a rejection of untenable, secular autocracies, which have plagued the Arab world in the post-colonial period.
Since the 1979 revolution, Iran has been at the center of “resistance” to oppressive and imperial policies of Western powers and Israel. Undoubtedly, the Iranian revolution has served as an ideational inspiration for resistance movements across the region, from Iraq to Lebanon and Palestine. It was a revolution that toppled the most powerful ally of the U.S. in the region therefore it reinforced the notion that people could also dislodge Arab autocrats allied to powerful foreign patrons.
Given how most protests have occurred in pro-U.S. autocracies – from Tunisia to Egypt and Yemen – it shouldn’t surprise us that the ancient regime and its foreign allies would try to ‘discredit’ and delegitimize such genuine, multi-sectoral, and broad-based mass protests by linking them to some imaginary ‘Iranian conspiracy’. If one looks at the composition, content, and dynamics of these protests, it is crystal clear that these uprisings are largely democratic and popular, meaning they are spontaneous reactions to bankrupt and unresponsive political systems, which have failed at providing basic political and economic freedoms for the majority of people. Sure, Iran has some influence among certain sections of Arab societies, but to accuse Iran of fomenting mass protests aimed at regime change is far from the truth.
The case of Bahrain is a stark indication of how reactionary Arab regimes, with possibly an implicit approval from the U.S., are using the ‘Iranian conspiracy’ rhetoric to justify direct and brutal intervention, in a theoretically sovereign country, in order to suppress genuine democratic protests. The intervention was sanctioned by a group of monarchies that opposed democratic change; it was not approved by a popular, representative parliament, which could invoke the provisions of a ‘mutual defense treaty’ to justify the entry of foreign troops to protect national security.
Sectarian issues might have suffused protests and political movements across the region, but it is utterly disingenuous to claim that elements connected to the Iranian regime have somehow ‘organized’ these protests. A quick look at the protests would reveal how multi-ethnic, multi-sectoral, large-scale, and popular they are. To claim that hundreds of thousands of protesters are acting as some ‘fifth column’ for the Iranian regime is preposterous. If anything, it is the U.S. that has been deeply involved in the politics of most countries that are currently experiencing popular uprisings. For decades, Washington supported autocrats, financially and politically, and influenced the contours of many Arab states. Then by logic, it is more appropriate to accuse the U.S. of ‘interfering’ in the affairs of Arab societies.
KZ: Don’t you believe that the United States doesn’t have a firm and stable policy on values such as democracy and freedom? The undemocratic regimes of Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia have been long supported by the consecutive U.S. administrations and no influential voice within the U.S. political establishment has contested this unconditional support so far. These governments have been the close allies of Washington for decades and now the international community is witnessing their dissolution. What’s your viewpoint in this regard?
RJH: Back in 2008, the Obama administration represented the greatest hope for the much-needed genuine dialogue between the Islamic world and America. After decades of imperial interventions and military misadventures in the Middle East, President Obama, as expressed in his famous ‘Cairo Speech’, promised a post-9/11 order where values of conciliation, inter-civilizational harmony, conflict resolution, mutual respect, and democratization take the upper hand. However, such ‘good will’ was somehow lost in translation when policies came into effect. The blunders started with his failed attempt at ‘resetting’ US-Iranian relations, then came his inability to stop settlement expansion in occupied territories. Instead of de-militarization, U.S. escalated its military operations in Afghanistan, while arms exports to Persian Gulf Arab states intensified. The ‘progressive shift’ somehow lost momentum to ‘realpolitik’.
The Arab uprisings have revealed America’s lack of a genuine commitment to democratization in the Middle East. Even the Obama administration, with its more liberal inflections, has waivered in its support for these democratic uprisings. In the case of Egypt, the U.S. waited until the last minute – when protests paralyzed the nation and the military threatened to intervene – before calling for ‘compromises’ on the part of Hosni Mubarak and his acolytes. In the case of Bahrain, America’s ‘silence’ on the brutal repression of protests has been highly noticeable especially in light of Washington’s deep geo-strategic interests in the Persian Gulf. In Libya, the U.S. prioritized evacuation of its citizens while the government was engaging in en masse violence. Later, instead of exploring a workable diplomatic ‘settlement’ to the Libyan crisis, the U.S. supported ‘military intervention’ and gradually delegated operational tasks to European partners. Over all, Washington has showed little consistency in its response to popular protests across the region. Sure, each country represents a unique geo-political reality; however, Arab uprisings have been fundamentally consistent in their spirit and message, thus demanding a more coherent response from Washington and others who claim that they favor democracy.
KZ: Do you trace the footsteps of anti-American sentiments in the chained revolutions of the Middle East, or do you simply consider them an intrinsic consequence of poverty, unemployment, inflation and social inequality in these countries? Are the Arab nations of the region still willing to be allied with the United States?
RJH: Definitely, the ‘Arab street’ has been very critical of American policies in the region. Even the more liberal sections of the society have vehemently opposed American interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan, and later in Libya. Major surveys have consistently reflected America’s deep unpopularity – in the realm of foreign policies – in the Arab world and even in Turkey. However when one looks at the protests, you could see more signs of frustration with Arab regimes rather than hatred of America and Israel. People are deeply critical of foreign powers, but profound poverty, long periods of political exclusion, and simmering disenchantment with Arab political systems is the main driving force. Sentiments on foreign policy issues have simply complemented and reinforced predominantly domestic concerns.
If the uprisings pave the way for a more pluralistic and democratic political system, it is normal to expect some changes in Arab states’ foreign policy. For instance, one could expect more independence on certain issues that involve Iran. Arguably, new Arab regimes would prioritize normalization of bilateral relations with Tehran and adopt a more balanced approach to its nuclear program. For instance, Egypt is already exhibiting some changes in its foreign policy posturing, with the post-Mubarak government tilting towards Iran and taking a more pro-active stance on Israeli-Palestine relations. One could also expect a more critical stance by Arab states on Israel’s oppressive policies. However, given America’s deep integration with many of these Arab states – both in the realm of economics and security – it would be difficult to envisage an abrupt ‘Arab decoupling’ from the U.S. In this sense, a more likely scenario – if the democratic transition takes place – is the emergence of more assertive and independent Arab regimes that don’t shy away from establishing good ties with Iran and criticizing U.S.-Israeli policies. In short, Arab uprisings could signal the end of the ‘Yes Man’ era, where Arab autocrats simply followed the U.S. line on certain foreign policy issues.
KZ: Let’s move to Iran and important issues concerning Iran’s position in the international community. The Western mainstream media permanently accuse Iran of violating human rights and ignoring democratic values. But let’s be impartial; who really violates the human rights? Isn’t it Israel that incarcerates Palestinian children and women and kills the unarmed civilians of Gaza? Isn’t it Saudi Arabia that tortures the prisoners using the most savage and inhumane techniques? Aren’t the Western states and media using the human rights excuse to put pressure on Iran? Why don’t they probe into the violation of human rights by their allies and cronies?
RJH: Unfortunately, the ‘human rights’ issue has always been instrumentalized by major powers in order to pressure their adversaries. Unless the U.S. improves its own record on human rights – from abolishing ‘rendition’ practices to closing the Guantanamo Prison and putting an end to tortures and random incarceration of ‘enemy combatants’ – it has no ‘moral ascendancy’ to even question other countries’ human rights record. More strikingly, the U.S. has failed to pressure many of its allies in the Middle East to improve on their human rights record. By any standard, one of the most brutal regimes in the Arab world are U.S. allies, while Israel – America’s top ally in the region – continues to build settlements and bombard highly-populated civilian areas in clear violation of international law. Given how America continues to support one of the world’s most undemocratic and oppressive states – by any standard – it is clear that human rights, in its true sense, does not play a central role in America’s foreign policy doctrine. Instead, stability and geo-political interests – U.S. bases and safety of hydrocarbon transport and reserves – continue to dominate Washington’s agenda in the Middle East. This is why the U.S. was almost silent on the brutal suppression of protests in Bahrain and continues to stand by Israel despite growing international condemnation from all corners of the globe, including majority of Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’ (OECD) members.
KZ: You might admit that the Western media are disproportionately inclined to see the dark side of stories and events in Iran. There’s a huge black propaganda campaign against Iran run by the mainstream media. You can never find any article, commentary or news package narrating one of Iran’s scientific discoveries or advancements or shedding light on Iran’s sophisticated culture, literature, history and civilization. Iranians are portrayed as barbaric and uncultured people who don’t understand anything of the life in the contemporary age. Terror, killing, execution, sanctions and nuclear energy; these are the recurrent themes of the Western media’s coverage of Iran. Why is it so? Why don’t they adopt an objective, fair and balanced stance on Iran?
RJH: First of all, it is hard to expect fair and balanced coverage by the corporate, mainstream media, where the main concern is profit and audience-satisfaction at any cost. Often, truth and complexity are the first casualties in the Darwinian media business model. However, when it comes to Iran, there are two aspects to the mainstream media’ coverage: 1) Because of the West’s deep-seated ‘orientalist’ approach, non-Western societies, especially those in the Middle East, have been portrayed as the ‘other’. The post-colonialist literature reveals how this ‘other’ has been painted as exotic, pre-modern, barbaric, and devoid of all the beautiful and admirable values embedded in the superior western cosmos. 2) Geo-strategic and ideological factors have created sufficient incentives for both Western governments as well as a wide array of institutions – from the media to the civil society – to ‘demonize’ nations, which are perceived to be opposing West’s political, cultural, and economic interests.
Iran represents a country that has rejected a wide range of Western models and values in favor of a uniquely indigenous political model, which is supposedly closer to the true spirit of the Iranian nation. Iran has also been American’s major adversary in the Middle East. Iran has not only rejected neo-liberal market-economics, but it has also rejected liberal democracy as the foundation of its society. Therefore, the Iranian model is an antithesis, alternative to many established Western models of governance and lifestyles.
Since the 1979 revolution, Iran has been a major victim of constant black propaganda, where only a handful of foreign people, mostly from the epistemic community and liberal circles, have a true knowledge of the complexities and nuances of the Iranian society. Political differences and the relative isolation of Iran have also prevented constant and deepening social and cultural exchange between scholars and people from Iran, on one hand, and Western individuals, on the other.
Crediting Iran’s achievements does not only create psychological dissonance for the Western audience – given pre-conceived negative perceptions of Iran – but it also contradicts the official line of many Western governments, which seek to either weaken Iran or totally change it. Therefore, for many media installations it is more business-friendly and politically convenient to stick to the ‘established line’, where Iran is portrayed as some backward, irrational, and aggressive country opposed to fundamental values of a supposedly universally accepted Western model. A combination of ingrained and systematic ignorance, on one hand, and deep political interests in isolating Iran, on the other, has reinforced and sustained efforts at constant discrediting and criticism of Iran. Therefore, despite Iran’s impressive achievements in the realm of socio-economic and scientific development, very few people have a balanced view of Iran.
KZ: What do you think about the unilateral sanctions imposed on Iran by the United States and European Union? Together with the sanctions of the Security Council, these punitive measures have targeted Iran’s economy and paralyzed the daily life of the ordinary Iranian citizens.
Even the reformist leaders Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi have condemned the West for imposing these crippling sanctions against Iran which severely affect the life of the Iranian people, especially in medical sector and aviation industry. Aren’t these sanctions contrary to the spirit of the United Nations? Don’t they represent some kind of human rights violation?
RJH: First of all, we should separate the United Nations as a global institution for development and peace, on one hand, from the UN Security Council, which is a predominantly political body that is composed of powerful states with specific interests, on the other. Second, it must be clear that almost all sections of the Iranian society, across the political spectrum, support Iran’s quest for peaceful nuclear technology, given the immense prestige and economic benefits that comes with it. Third, we should distinguish between the UNSC resolutions, on one hand, and unilateral sanctions by the E.U. and the U.S. The UNSC resolutions were more a function of political interests of certain countries rather than a true manifestation of legal concerns vis-à-vis Iran’s nuclear program. Up to this date, no international agency can provide credible evidence that shows that Iran has violated the non-proliferation treaty (NPT), which means any hint at Iran’s ‘weaponization’ of its program belongs purely to the realm of speculation.
Unfortunately, unilateral sanctions – more than UNSC resolutions – have prevented Iran from fully exploiting its immense economic potentials, but more importantly they have placed immense pressure on the Iranian populace. Sanctions have raised transaction and import costs, restricted basic-commodity and sensitive medical-technology imports, and even affected the import of spare parts for Iran’s aviation industry. As a result, Iran has faced immense problems with aviation safety, availability of cheap and affordable food and other essential commodities, the establishment of stable and deepening channels of communication in the realm culture, education, and scientific cooperation. At the end, the sanctions are simply hurting ordinary Iranians, but they fail to fundamentally alter Iran’s foreign policy and social configuration. By restricting people’s access to basic goods and services, these sanctions are violating individuals’ inalienable rights to food, shelter, safety, and health. By constraining Iran’s ability to fully exploit its vast economic potentials, sanctions are violating the aspirations of millions of Iranians, who strive for a better, more modern, and developed Iran. Nonetheless, the Iranian regime has remained intact, and it has moved ahead with major projects across the country in a quest to push Iran nearer to its vision of becoming a regional hub and centre for scientific, socio-economic and technological excellence.
Instead of sanctions, the West should work on a ‘solution’ that addresses Iran’s deep economic and technological concerns both in the realm of nuclear technology as well as civilian economy. However, more importantly, the West should focus on resolving and clarifying a range of security and foreign policy issues with Iran. The only way forward is a ‘grand bargain’, where Iran and the West address a range of interrelated issues across different dimensions in a hope to resolve differences on both sides. Limited, haphazard, and cynical policies do not simply work.
KZ: What’s your prediction for the future of Iran-West relations? Are they fated to remain enemies forever? Will we witness the continued bitterness and acrimony between Iran and the U.S. in the future? What’s the solution for the two sides to get out of this unending antagonism? Don’t you believe that the U.S. hasn’t taken the necessary steps to renormalize its ties with Iran and build confidence with Tehran?
RJH: Well, prediction presupposes the identification of all relevant variables and a clear understanding of their interrelationship. This is almost an impossible task when it comes to international affairs, given the sheer number of variables and their complex and often unpredictable interrelationship. However, we can make certain ‘conditional’ and qualified projections about a range of possible future scenarios when it comes to Iran-West relations. First of all, we should distinguish between ‘multiple’ centers in the West. Essentially, the West pertains to Europe and the U.S. For the purpose of simplicity, we can say that Canada, Australia, and New Zealand would maintain some level of pragmatic relationship with Iran, despite intermittent criticisms against the latter’s internal and foreign policies.
The nature of Iran’s relations with Europe is qualitatively different, given the deep interdependence between the two sides. Despite all the sanctions, divestments, and escalation in politico-diplomatic tensions, Iran’s trade with Europe has remained stable and solid – it has in fact grown in recent years. Iran has substantial investments in Europe, and deep cultural-scientific-political ties continue to bind the two sides together. Despite German, French, and Italian politicians’ often-bellicose statements against Iran, Tehran is still seen as a major power, important nation, and an inevitable partner in an extremely strategic region. This explains why Europe has been keen on sticking to a diplomatic approach in resolving issues vis-à-vis Iran’s nuclear program. Predominantly, Europe is opposed to any military option against Iran, and one could argue that all these sanctions are one way of appeasing more right-wing and hard-line elements both within and outside the continent. This is understandable, given the gradual and noticeable rise of conservative and hawkish parties in European countries. However, given Iran’s immense geo-strategic value to Europeans, there will always be a rationale for rapprochement and even closer ties with Iran. Moreover, Russia is still seen as a potential threat, and Moscow’s virtual monopoly over Europe’s energy imports means that Iran – possessing the world’s second largest reserves of gas – could be a strong alternative and source of energy-import diversification. This has gained more importance in light of Libya’s inability – due to the ongoing conflict – to provide Europe with energy imports. Given Iran’s strong and burgeoning ties with Turkey and the prospects for a transcontinental pipeline, connecting central Asian and Iran to Europe, the economic and energy security logic will always exert a pressure on Europeans to have a more conciliatory relationship with Iran.
Iran also represents a huge and growing market for European firms and industries, which are struggling with economic recession and growing competition from emerging economies such as China and Brazil. Iran’s vast and largely untapped hydrocarbon resources do also represent a huge lure for multinational European firms, which seek to deepen their market-shares and investments in hydrocarbon-rich nations. For its part, the United Kingdom has generally adopted a policy that is more reflective of its ‘special relations’ with U.S. however it has shown more pragmatism and restraint than Washington. Iran is aware of these realities and it appreciates the rationale in having stable and strong relations with Europe. Therefore, the sanctions could serve as some sort of a blip in bilateral relations, rather than a complete rupture between the two.
Iran’s relation with the U.S. is unique and much more complicated. The two sides are hardly interdependent in economic terms, while politico-cultural-diplomatic relations are dismal. There is a total absence of formal and institutionalized bilateral security relations. However, the important variable here is the presence of strong pro-Israeli lobby in the U.S. Given the depth and gravity of Iran’s differences with Israel, one could not envisage a definitive de-escalation in anti-Iran lobby in Washington. On its part, Tehran continues to harbor suspicion vis-à-vis America. Obama’s inability to inject a paradigmatic shift into U.S.’ Iran policy has almost eliminated whatever good will generated by his special ‘Nowrouz’ addresses to Iran. On the nuclear issue, the U.S. has not offered any concrete benefits, political and technological, to encourage more multilateral confidence-building measures, while it opposed the Turkey-Brazil-Iran deal, the ‘Tehran Declaration’, which represented the hope for a quantum-leap in nuclear talks.
The Arab uprisings have further complicated bilateral relations, since the U.S. and Iran have divergent strategic positions on protests across the region. In Bahrain and Syria, both countries stand on opposite sides, even if rhetorically they have converged on calls for restraint, dialogue, and an end to violence. At this point in time, domestic political forces in both countries have shown little interest in mending ties. With nuclear negotiations in total limbo and constant sanctions and pressure on Iran, there is little reason to believe that bilateral relations would gain a new color and character. There are always possibilities for ‘black swans’ – occurrence of high impact, low-probability events – in Iran’s relations with the U.S, or even Europe, but given current trends – domestically and internationally – the pendulum of probabilities swings against prospects for an Iran-U.S. rapprochement in the short and medium term. However, growing tensions over Iran’s nuclear program and simmering anxieties attached to America’s impending withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan might form the rationale for some reasonable engagement between both sides. What stands between the two countries more than anything is the Israeli lobby, and right-wing political forces, which opposes any grand bargain between Iran and U.S.