Dancing to Western music
Open letter to Iran's Nobel laureate
May 4, 2006
Dear Shirin Ebadi,
The appeal you and Mohammad Sahimi addressed to "Western democracies" on January 19 ["Defusing Iran with democracy"] disappointed this former admirer of yours. Your invitation to the current and previous imperial powers to intervene for human rights in Iran fails precisely on grounds of the noble principles you invoked to construct your argument. These were:
1. Respect for historical accuracy;
2. Promotion of transparency; and
3. Accountability on the part of the powerful.
I will address the second and third of these in my follow up next week.
To be fair, I should add that this is a failure you share with most other Iranian reformists and revolutionaries, whose passion for "universal" democratic values is self-contradictory. True you reminded "the West" softly in your published commentary that it bears some responsibility for the current standoff with Iran. But your remarks are primarily devoted to affirming the civilizing mission the imperial powers claim when they intervene in countries less dangerous than themselves.
To wit, you advise that "Western nations with clean human rights records" to downgrade diplomatic relations with Tehran and to isolate it at the UN unless Iran rushes to become more like them. Need I remind you that this civilized bunch murdered tens of millions of their own on battlefields and in gas chambers in just three decades? You also ask the World Bank to stop lending to the Iranian government and you urge the Europeans to make investment in Iran contingent on greater freedom of expression and political association.
Apparently you do not realize, Ms. Ebadi, that in the country that leads this pack, the United States, no third political party has been allowed by the two majors to emerge in at least a century. Do you know that no candidate of any persuasion stands any chance of being nominated for a national office (and most other elected positions) unless the super wealthy class here greases his/her campaign wheels with cash? You have rightfully complained elsewhere that the theocratic hierarchy limits political competition in Iran. Does it not bother you then what happens to the aspirations of tens of millions of Americans whose spokespersons rarely win a seat unless they compromise their fidelity to their average constituents?
Amazingly, you do not see that every bit of your advocacy for the rule of law, pluralism and human rights contradicts these very ideals. You are used to being adored as a fearless champion who speaks truth to power in Iran. But when it comes to democracy and parity beyond Iran's borders – the big picture – you stand with the anti-democratic powerful.
Presumably the humanistic intervention model you have in mind is inspired by the international boycott that succeeded in ending Apartheid in South Africa. But would you deny that Western powers postponed that eventuality as long as they could by surreptitious violations of that embargo? Have you forgotten that troops from Cuba, a nation you would not deem worthy of being considered "democratic," were instrumental in rolling back South African aggression in Angola?
Or perhaps what motivates you is the remarkable pluralism that Iranians experienced when, during the Second World War, Reza Shah was forced to step down by the invading Allied forces. More likely, what appeals to you is Europe's current leveraging of EU membership hopes to force political opening in Turkey. And let us not forget the US-led wars of "liberation" against Yugoslavia, Nazi Germany and, earlier still, against the secessionist Confederacy in America's south.
Surely you rely on the dominant narrative of liberal democracy, that "totalitarian" states should not be appeased. That is why Iranian reformist parties and your other Cold War-minded allies in the Iranian opposition often highlight the US-funded "velvet revolutions" of Eastern Europe, including the late versions in Georgia and Ukraine.
There is just one important detail missing in this narrative, Ms. Ebadi. These arguments for "human rights" leave out the fact that your favorite guarantors of law and decency strengthened or otherwise prompted the rise of the powers which they later dismantled.
When you were a judicial judge in the former Shah's corrupt bureaucracy, you must have seen up close who paid the price for the Western power play. People like us did. Did you ask for international help to counter human rights abuses then?
In some cases, such as Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden, the West you so adore was the prime enabler behind the worst abuses in Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention the Northern Alliance murderers and rapists reinstated since 2001 as NATO's enforcers in Afghanistan. In Iran, the coup your enlightened neocolonial saviors arranged in 1953 left Iranians so little voice in their own affairs that the revolution of 1979 became inevitable.
There are always competing versions of history, each of which offers a different path to "a better future." You are able to recommend humanistic foreign intervention as a salvation for Iranians only because you leave out how we reached where we are today. Consequently, the road you suggest to a democratic future is the equivalent of adding fuel to fire. It reminds me of the American proverb, "the road to Hell is paved with good intentions."
Is it any wonder that Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, condemns the Egyptian leadership as undemocratic and pleads with them the next day to undermine the democratically elected Palestinian Hamas, even as the election that put Hamas in power is certified by former President Jimmy Carter on CNN?!
As your central theme, Ms. Ebadi, you and Mr. Sahimi argue forcefully that democratic governments, i.e., Western powers, are less dangerous than others. This is another gross distortion of contemporary history, spread especially forcefully by Neoconservative opportunists post-9/11, such as Washington's Israel mouthpiece, the so-called Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and it's sponsor, the Committee on the Present Danger. The United States is neither a democracy (just ask the African American victims of Hurricane Katrina) nor peaceful.
Last June I briefly debated the president of FDD, Clifford May, on MSNBC television about the merits of US funding the opposition to make Iran more democratic and less dangerous. I reminded him that vastly more people per capita are in prison in America than in any other country, bar none (according to Department of Justice figures). I also mentioned that Iran has not attacked any other nation in three decades of theocratic rule, while the leader of model "Western democracies" has been a serial bomber-invader for at least a half-century.
How do you, Ms. Ebadi, justify your assurances that a Western-oriented Iran would be a responsible atomic power when the only atomic power to incinerate hundreds of thousands of civilians, and one that is to this day unapologetic, is your "democratic" United States? Where is your evidence for equating Western-style liberalization with nonviolence?
At a recent conference of Historians Against War, America's famed Howard Zinn accused the Bush White House of misusing history to justify aggression. When you claim that South Africa dismantled its nuclear weapons industry solely as a result of becoming democratic, you, too, falsify history, Ms. Ebadi. It was with the acquiescence of "Western democracies" that the Apartheid regime acquired nuclear weapons know-how. Ditto when you imply that Israel's "democratic" credentials make it a trustworthy steward of nuclear weapons. Have you forgotten that Israel refuses to join the nuclear non-proliferation treaty as Iran has done?
Have you any idea how the Israeli government has for three decades been in the tight grip of some of the Middle East's most fanatic religious kooks? How dare you forgive the brutal occupation of Palestine and the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians as "democracy" ? Is this also the kind of human rights you envision for Iranians?
-- Feb 26, 2006
Based in Washington, Rostam Pourzal writes about the politics of human rights for Iranian expatriate journals.