Part three of the Persian Path series, on Iran, its history, and dissidents. See here for the second part.
Gazing upon the West’s actions and inactions concerning Iran makes for depressing viewing. There are two major sources of disappointment in the ‘free world’- the opportunist and hypocritical USA and its allies, and the leftists and liberals who cannot quite bring themselves to oppose the Islamic Republic for myriad reasons.
Some American failings have already been outlined in a previous article. The US also supported Saddam Hussein’s war against Iran in the 1980s, seeing that butcher as a tool to use against the Iranian clerics. This war was horrifically destructive for both sides and led to flagrant abuses of human rights (think Khomeini’s use of child soldiers and Saddam’s gassing of the Kurds).
But for me, as a leftist, the most acute betrayal has come from those whose camp I have a tent in. My differences with some on the left are rooted in the split caused by the 2003 Iraq intervention- one of the US’s few honourable actions in the Middle East in my view, despite the terrible aftermath, a view shared by a minority of liberals, leftists, and socialists at the time (call me a liberal internationalist if you must, but I prefer the term revolutionary, even if the overthrow of Saddam Hussein was a revolution conducted by the backwards George W. Bush).
So I cannot stand the prevarications and the pusillanimity of liberals and the left when it comes to denouncing tyranny and despotism. It is too easy (but still necessary) to critique the failings of western foreign policy. But is it so hard to denounce Saddam Hussein and the Iranian clerics from first principles, without having to stutter qualifications about how US actions have wreaked havoc in the region?
Apparently so. For too much of the left, any anti-American or anti-western regime is ipso facto ‘good’, even if it is fascistic or genocidal. Thus, the emetic spectacle of the corrupt George Galloway sucking up to Saddam Hussein (this, by the way, took place in 1994- after some of Saddam’s worst excesses, including the Anfal genocide). Like Narcissus, the left has looked at itself and fallen in love with its own piety, leading to excesses of self-indulgence, hypocrisy, cowardice, and irresponsibility.
In the Iranian case, this translates to eminent frauds like Michel Foucault delighting in the Islamic revolution for its ‘spirituality’ and western feminists feeling squeamish at criticising the oppression of women in Muslim states. Few speak up against the enforcement of the hijab for Iranian women, despite these latter protesting that enforcement with courage and determination.
The most recent manifestation of this more general trend came from a discussion between feminists Christina Sommers and Roxanne Gay; the latter found it impossible to declare support for oppressed women in the Muslim world because of her intersectional politics (an illuminating account of this event was documented on Twitter by a member of the Faithless Hijabi group).
Whatever happened to the left’s commitments to internationalism and solidarity? What would Gay say to the Iranian women thrown in jail for protesting the veil?
When the day comes when women in the Muslim world gain more freedom, they will look back in some disgust that western feminists would not lend their support. Will they thank western leftists for their piety and their Foucaltian love affair with ‘Islamic values’? Leftist silence gives carte blanche to ‘fascism with an Islamic face’. Read Mariam Memarsadeghi on these matters and weep.
As mentioned above I have roots in the anti-totalitarian left, inspired by the arguments and ideas of Nick Cohen, Norman Geras, Christopher Hitchens, Adam Michnik, and others. Does this mean I believe that American and western military might can be harnessed for good? Well, yes. Though it is not feasible to go around toppling every evil regime, it is possible for the western world to live up to some of its most cherished values and provide support and aid for dissidents in Iran and elsewhere without falling into cynical realpolitik.
There is nonetheless a case from self-interest for the west to encourage support for regime change or revolution in Iran. The regime has shown shameless dishonesty over its nuclear ambitions and likely ignored the 2015 nuclear deal. Former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s eschatological fetishizing shows just how dangerous a nuclear Iran would be. Let us also not forget that the regime funds and supports terrorist groups such as Hezbollah.
I fear that the tiny, blundering hands of Donald Trump are not the best ones to hold the tiller on this, and it should be noted that many Iranian dissidents, such as Maryam Namazie, oppose American ‘imperialism’ as much as they oppose the clerical regime. Heshmat Alavi provides a set of policies which ought to put pressure on the regime.
In the meantime, it is incumbent on those in the ‘free world’, whether supportive of western action or not, to support the anti-regime forces in and outside Iran, to amplify dissident voices and to live up to the ideals of democracy, liberty, and secularism- for one would not wish to look back in the knowledge that one shamefully abandoned the brave Persians who fought against a fascistic theocracy.
For the conclusion to the series, see here.