Writing about the chances of a US war with Iran, the Economist notes in its current cover story that “after the false intelligence that led America into Iraq, and the mayhem that followed, it may seem hard to believe that America or Israel are pondering an attack on a much bigger Muslim country. But they are – and they are not mad.” Others like Shirin Saeidi and her colleagues at the Campaign Against Sanctions and Military Intervention in Iran, think that a US war is, as their organization’s name suggests, mad. Associate editor Zahir Janmohamed spoke with Saeidi, an Iranian-American PhD student at the University of Cambridge, about the kidnapping of five Iranian diplomats in January in Iraq, the breakdown of Iranian civil society, the growing distance between Western and Iranian academia, and the dizzying prospects of a US war with Iran.
Lets start first with the kidnapping of the five Iranian nationals in Iraq. What do you know about their capture, their backgrounds, and the likelihood of their release? What prompted the US to detain them? Has the International Committee of the Red Cross been able to asses their conditions in captivity?
Given the illegal and criminal invasion of Iraq led by the US, the destruction of the infrastructure of the country, and the rape and torture of Iraqi men, women and children by American soldiers, I am certainly not surprised by the kidnapping of the five Iranian diplomats. The men are Iranian officials [Mousa Chegini, Abbas Jami, Majid Qaemi, Hossein Baqeri and Hamid Asgari-Shokouh] and were invited to Iraq by the Iraqi president Jalal Talabani; in recent months, the women in their families have protested against their illegal incarceration and demanded the right to visit. Two employees kidnapped prior to these five men are also being held in the same prison – they are Majid Daghari and Seyed Heidar Alavi. The Iraqi government has repeatedly asked the American occupying forces to release the men, but their case has been pushed into the fall for review. The Red Cross met the officials in April and stated that they were in good physical and psychological condition. Importantly, however, one Iranian official, Jalal Sharafi, who was abducted in Baghdad in February and later released, stated that he was tortured ‘day and night’ by what he believes were American forces. More recently, Human Rights Watch informed Robert Gates that the Iranian diplomats, if suspected of any criminal activity, must be handed over to Iraqi authorities and that the their current incarceration by American forces is illegal according to international law.
Some say the arrest of the four Iranian-Americans is in response to the kidnapping of the Iranian nationals in Iraq. Other suggest that it is an effort by hardliners in Iran to sabotage normalized relations between the US and Iran. What is your assessment?
The United States’ financial support for regime change and the terrorist organizations that are funded within Iran have engendered policies that undermine Iran’s own position before the international community. The US agenda for regime change and Iran’s reaction to this agenda has only strengthened the position of hardliners in both countries. Significantly, however, the Iranian government has made several efforts to normalize relations with the US, dating back to the Clinton presidency. The decision to refuse a normalization of relations has often rested with the Americans. Numerous examples of this can be provided, from unilateral economic sanctions against the country, the US intervention in Iran’s purchase of passenger planes, the funding of terrorist organizations within Iran and those against Iran such as the MEK/MKO in neighboring countries, and now the attempt to start another war in the region.
To what extent do you think that US policy towards Iran is shaped by Israel’s interest? What evidence/proof exists (if any) to suggest a linkage between pro-Israeli lobbying groups and their shaping of US policies towards Iran?
American and British foreign policy in the Middle East is carried out in tandem with Israel, as their support for the war of aggression by Israel against Lebanon testified so glaringly again last summer. The rhetoric coming out of Washington D.C. regarding Iran is almost identical to Israeli discourse; there are hundreds of examples of this – I suggest a recent article in Haaretz as an example. However, in many ways I think the attempt to analyze which country influences which and to identify lobby organizations as the main force behind US/Israeli relations is a fruitless endeavor. An emphasis on hegemonic ideas tends to veil the institutional processes which make imperial pursuits possible. For example, the patriarchal nature of US and Israeli policy toward the Palestinians, Lebanese, Iraqis, and now their agenda against Iran is directly tied to the racist, sexist, and classist behavior exemplified within these communities. The struggle against US/Israeli aggression must be fought on several fronts, but it requires a level of self-consciousness regarding the social and cultural institutions that suffocate the weak from within our communities. International domination and domestic aggression must be examined and dismantled simultaneously. The reality is that an alliance exists between the two states which has been cemented by similar strategic aims in the region and the Judeo-Christian history shared by the countries.
From your discussions with reformers within Iran, what is their assessment of the US “democracy” fund and how it might be affecting their efforts within Iran?
Individuals from backgrounds as diverse as Shirin Ebadi, Emadoddin Baghi, Akbar Ganji, and Parnaz Azima, the Radio Farda reporter currently held in Iran, have all voiced their dismay of US funding for regime change. The lack of understanding by the US of Iran’s delicate social movements coupled with no transparency has contributed to all NGOs, women’s organizations, and individual reformists in Iran falling under suspicion. This American intrusion into domestic Iranian politics has created an atmosphere of distrust which adversely impacts Iran’s civil society. During the Khatami presidency over 8000 NGO’s formed in Iran – the climax of social organization was at this time, in reality, NGO’s began to form rigorously toward the end of the Iran-Iraq war – working on women’s rights, minority rights, environmental and religious issues. Much of these efforts are currently being undermined due to international pressures.
Some say that there has been too much attention given to the foreign funds and that regardless of this funding, Iranian President Ahmadinejad would still crack down on women’s groups, NGO, journalists, etc. Do you agree with this?
The detention of academics, activists, and NGO leaders is deplorable and unacceptable under any conditions or circumstances for all states of the international system. I also note that in political analyses it is important to formulate an understanding grounded in reality and then move toward developing creative approaches for explanation and resolution. Dr. Ahmadinejad occupies only one center of power in Iran, and the least influential; therefore, more comprehensive approaches need to be implemented that account for global and local forces in discussions of Iranian politics.
Speaking of his support for war with Iran, Sen Joseph Lierberman said, “If there’s any hope of the Iranians living according to the international rule of law and stopping, for instance, their nuclear weapons development, we can’t just talk to them.” What do you think the consequences of war with Iran would be, for the US, for Iran, and for the region?
I recently met a young woman here at Cambridge who is Palestinian but spent her childhood in Lebanon, and during the course of our discussions I realized how for so many from the region, moves are marked by wars. While American and European counterparts relocate due to parents’ job or educational opportunities, many Palestinians – and now Iraqis – have relocated as a result of armed conflict. A short response to your question is that a war with Iran would cause sheer devastation, as the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency Mohammad ElBaradei recently stated, not only for Iranians, but for the region. In addition to the loss of life, the destruction of infrastructure and the environment, it would be another blow to the spirit of Middle Easterners. Conversations with Iraqis and Iranians quickly highlight that both nations are still recuperating from the Iran-Iraq war from 1980 to 1988, and discussions with Palestinians and Lebanese will reveal similar uneasiness with contemporary history. Additionally, another war led by the US would negatively affect the spirit of the American people, for imperialism and colonialism also leave legacies on the imperialist and colonialist. Furthermore, as anti-war activists committed to social justice, we also need to account for the senseless loss of American lives in the Bush administration’s imperial pursuit. Most American soldiers are minorities who encounter social, economic and political disadvantages in the US and join the armed forces for financial rather than value-driven reasons.
You have written a lot about how the media, particularly US media, often falsifies news about Iran and in some cases, employs Orientalist language in the description of Iranians. Can you elaborate and provide examples of this?
To prepare a nation for war, images of the ‘other’ as ‘uncivilized,’ a term used against Iranians most recently by Newt Gingrich, are presented. And that’s what has been happening in regard to Iran in the US media for nearly three decades. Iranians are portrayed simply as incapable of reasoning, and the conclusion drawn is that a confrontation is inevitable. It is important to bear in mind that these images carry international consequences because US media is projected globally and not just in the United States. Therefore, the racism and sexism which shades American culture can readily be identified in other regions of the world.
Many human rights activists observe that discussions of Iran’s alleged nuclear program has overshadowed other issues, including human rights, women’s rights, and many others. Why do you think the US is so narrowly focused on Iran’s nuclear program? What are the implications of Iran as a nuclear power?
As far as I am aware, no NGO or women’s organization within Iran has formally requested the United States’ or any other state’s assistance in domestic Iranian politics. This proposition has been presented to the US by a small percentage of Iranians in the Diaspora hoping to optimize on an opportunity for personal gain. The international gaze on the nuclear energy program has shifted domestic focus away from other issues. For example, soaring rates of child abuse and drug addiction are two issues that need further attention and advocacy work. But unfortunately, as we have seen in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Palestine, when a nation is under constant threat from the outside, such issues fall to the side and it is ultimately women and children that suffer greatly.
Some of those targeted recently in Iran are, like yourself, Iranian-American academics. What is the status of relations between US and Iranian academia?
I think the central issue here is that threats and sanctions against Iran prevent a free flow of information, cultural and scientific exchanges. They also make Iranians suspicious of American-Iranian academics due to the close tie between academia and government organizations in the West. Imperial aggression tends to create social isolation, as is visible with the deterioration of the Iraqi education system under American occupation.
Finally, what barriers do you think exist in establishing normalized relations with Iran? What are the benefits, if any, in establishing dialogue between the two nations?
The first step toward normalized relations is that threats of regime change and an American invasion must be removed. Dialogue is beneficial, I believe, when it is on equal terms and without preconditions. I do not ascribe to the notion that negotiation is acceptable from a defeated position. However, I am not too optimistic about a radical new trajectory in US policy toward the Middle East, and would much rather invest my time in creating conducive opportunities for Americans and Iranians to directly interact and build relations outside the parameters of national governments.
Zahir Janmohamed is an associate editor of altmuslim.com and co-founder of the Qunoot Foundation. He is based in Washington, DC.