08 November 2011

How do you solve a problem like Medea?

Image of surprisingly-not-alpine-Austria but Mount Damavand of north-central Iran, courtesy Wikipedia

My apologies to my gentle readers; I can rarely pass up an opportunity for a bad, bad pun. This one arises from a comment that one esteemed reader, Mr James P— of Kongming’s Archives (and a man of integrity and courtesy whose opinions in general I’ve come to respect very highly) left for my last blog post on Facebook:

I don’t think there is suitable justification for a war there by a long shot and I believe this is a bad time for what would likely turn into another lengthy, bloody, and costly war. I’m definitely not in favor of this. But an analysis of such a war seems incomplete at best when it overlooks the myriad problems with Iran, it’s government and leadership, and the role they play internationally.

This is true, though the answers are likely not as Mr P— is wont to assume. I believe Iran is problematic. I appreciate and admire the antique humanist strain within Shi’a Islam (which is more or less in continuity with the Zoroastrian, Achaemenid fountainhead of Socratic-Platonic-Aristotelian ethics, the monotheistic radicalism of the prophets of Old Israel and, by extension, the radicalism of classical Christianity) to which Iran’s government pays tribute, as in the reservation of seats in the Majlis for religious minorities. I also recognise, however, that there are numerous ways in which that very same government undermines its own commitment to its ideals by violating the dignity of its citizens. There are a number of people who can make that case far, far better than I can – Ms Naj over at Neoresistance is always a reliable advocate for those in Iran who are systematically bereft of power (and, to her great credit, she remains stridently anti-war and pro-economic justice).

Though the problems with Iran’s government, leadership and foreign relations may be myriad, I do tend to think that the hierarchy begins with the inconvenient truths revealed by Operation Ajax nearly sixty years ago. Certain sometimes-dominant elements within the state apparatus of the United States and of the United Kingdom are unwilling to give face to states in the region (even moderate and reformist ones such as the government of Mr Mosaddegh!) which do not acquiesce to their economic colonialism with the appropriate level of servility. The resultant humiliation of having an autocrat who was little more than the puppet of Western petrol interests was, rather understandably, a little much for the Iranian people to bear. Sadly, it also served to poison the social-democratic and constitutional-monarchist vision of the overthrown Mr Mosaddegh such that the (republican, albeit religious) purveyors of the Islamic Revolution were able to paint themselves as the Last Best Hope for Iranian self-determination. This is the ace hand they still hold, and which they still play at every opportunity when the United States and Allies make aggressive noises in Iran’s direction.

This desire for and insecurity about sovereignty issues also informs the movements Iran’s government is making toward becoming a nuclear state. Though Iran is a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty and has been a member of the International Atomic Energy Agency since its inception, its historical vulnerability to foreign attack and hostility from the US and Great Britain (plus or minus Israel) certainly provide an incentive to acquire nuclear energy technology and weaponry, and to build bridges with nations historically less aligned with the Anglo-American West (namely Russia and China). One may react with chagrin to a Russia-China-Iran bloc; one may deplore the acquisition of nuclear arms; but it strikes me as a bad-faith argument to pretend that any of these moves somehow place Iran’s government outside the realm of rationality (if we are defining rationality in terms of foreign-policy realism).

In terms of their international role, on balance I believe it is wrong to stigmatise (as much of the Anglo-American press outside outlets like the Guardian tends to do by default) either the Iranian government or the Iranian people as ‘irrational’ in their pursuit of greater sovereignty, and even nuclear technology, when a significant part of the context is two neighbours – Pakistan to the east and Israel to the west – each with already existing nuclear arms and each with disturbing proclivities to violence and zealotry (whether of an Islamic-fundamentalist or of a secular-Zionist flavour). Even more so when one considers that the two international powers most stridently attempting to isolate Iran are also aiding and abetting Islamic fundamentalist and secular über-Ba’athist elements within Iran. Though I am not (I repeat, not) a fan of the current administration, I fear that an order in which Jundullah or the Mojahedin-e Khalq are given preference on account of their foreign support would likely be much, much worse. All this is dancing around the central issue, though; as Ms Naj notes, 120 noted Iranian intellectuals and human-rights advocates have come out quite stridently against war as a viable option to settling Iran’s current woes.

My apologies, Mr P—: I fear that, even though I may have cursorily touched on some of the thorny issues surrounding American foreign policy toward Iran, this ended up being more of a post on ‘how don’t you solve a problem like Medea’ as opposed to how we do. On the brighter side, though (mileage may vary depending on how likely the Iranian government is to listen), I think quite a number of Iranian citizens (and that number is not insignificant) are amenable to letting bygones be bygones… if we give them a reason to.

1 comment:

  1. The irrationality argument has been used before. I remember people were making that argument in the run up to the invasion of Iraq. "Saddam is crazy, he will use WMDs if he has them."

    As much as I disapprove of aspects of Iran's foreign and domestic policy, it has been a very long time since Persia/Iran started a war of aggression, and I see no real evidence that Iran's leaders are actually irrational.

    Furthermore, history is replete with examples of nations becoming more aggressive out of fear of external threats. It can be argued that Russia/the Soviet Union, Japan and even Prussia/Germany, all adopted more aggressive foreign policies because of negative experiences with foreign powers