Misreading the Protests in Tehran

After 30 years of enmity that closed off most lines of communication, the recent crisis in Iran has suddenly engendered a boom of U.S. interest in the Islamic Republic.

But much of the attention in Washington and elsewhere in the U.S. is often misplaced, misguided, or completely detached from the realities currently embroiling Iran in its most significant crisis since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

U.S. diplomatic relations with the nascent Islamic Republic were severed after the hostage crisis, when a group of Iranian students seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran and held many of its occupants hostage for 444 days.

Since then, few significant steps have been taken towards repairing relations, and the remaining contacts between the U.S. and Iran atrophied as U.S. experts with firsthand knowledge of Iran grew older and their knowledge grew more obsolete.

"[The Revolution] was 30 years ago," said Ambassador Nick Burns, a former State Department undersecretary for political affairs in the George W. Bush administration. "We have a whole generation of foreign service officers who didn’t learn Farsi" – the language of Iranians.

Furthermore, while there have been some diplomatic contacts with Iran on matters such as Afghanistan – before 2003 when Bush placed Iran in the "Axis of Evil" – and later Iraq, those contacts were not common and narrow in scope.

"I was the point person on Iran from 2005 to 2008, and I never once met an Iranian official," said Burns.

The resulting knowledge deficit has haunted attempts at easing relations, as when Pres. Bill Clinton’s (1993-2000) secretary of state, Madeline Albright, waited outside a conference room at the U.N. As a gesture, Albright planned to catch her Iranian counterpart on the way out and shake his hand. But the Iranian foreign minister wouldn’t shake a woman’s hand, nor did he want pictures of him with a high-ranking U.S. official to get back to Iran.

Many pundits and politicians in the U.S. view the current crisis as an opportunity to instigate a regime change in Iran, projecting their own aspirations on those of the demonstrators and supporters of the ostensible loser of Iran’s election, former prime minister Mir Hossein Moussavi.

"This is not about my expertise versus somebody in a think tank," declared Sen. Lindsey Graham as he announced his sponsorship for a bill that would boost funding to Radio Farda and Voice of America in Farsi to help the U.S.-sponsored news outlets get broader reach in Iran. "This is about me doing what I need to do."

Along with Graham, neoconservative Sen. Joe Lieberman and Sen. John McCain announced their support for the bill, to be written over the next Congressional break.

The Iranian government has charged that the broadcast of foreign news sources into Iran is spurring on demonstrations, which is cited in the oft-repeated government mantra that the protests are merely foreign meddling in Iranian affairs.

Early in the crisis, when millions of Iranians took to the streets objecting to the landslide victory of incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Moussavi said that the ultimate objective of the protests was to get the allegedly fraudulent results annulled in favor of a new election.

When Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei announced a crackdown against the protests, rumors began to fly that a campaign was under way to unseat Khamenei as the supreme leader. While this presented a challenge to the order within the system, no credible evidence has emerged to suggest that the protest movement as whole endorses an overthrow of the system.

Indeed, Moussavi has repeatedly said the demonstrations are within the constitutional rights of Iranians granted by the Islamic Republic (article 27 permits peaceful protest). Even attempting to unseat Khamenei can be accomplished through the existing structures of the system – namely the Assembly of Experts, which appoints and can impeach the Leader.

Undeterred by those realities, or perhaps unaware of the dynamics, U.S. commentators continue to present the protesters as opposed to the system of the Islamic Republic. For example, widely read New York Times foreign affairs columnist Thomas Friedman seized on the Moussavi campaign’s green color scheme and declared the movement "Iran’s Green Revolution to end its theocracy."

Asieh Mir, an Iranian who formerly worked in government and civil society there and who now is a fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP), says that the battle being waged in Iran is between two factions within the regime. Even Moussavi’s faction, she says, seeks a "workable democracy for Iran that holds to Islamic values" and does not necessarily want to install a democracy in the Western sense.

At the same USIP forum, Brooking Institution fellow Suzanne Maloney said that in the current crisis, reliable information about elite wrangling is at a minimum because those with knowledge and a stake in the process are unlikely to get on "international phone lines" or the internet to distribute the information around the globe.

Furthermore, Maloney contends that the crisis itself is evidence of a knowledge deficit in the U.S.: "As we’ve seen in the past two weeks, we had no idea what was going on in Iran," nor an ability to predict what happened, noting that there is little information from "anyone who means anything".

But the most glaring misunderstanding of Iran seems to come from U.S. neoconservatives and their right wing allies, who have called on Barack Obama to make broader efforts at democracy promotion in Iran and stronger denunciations of the Iranian regime in light of the maltreatment of peaceful protesters.

But Maloney, mirroring Mir’s comments, contends that a pro-democratic faction already exists in Iran, but the U.S. doesn’t understand or know much about it.

"This movement already exists and we don’t touch it," she said. "We have no idea where it is."

Nonetheless, neoconservatives, some of whom like Daniel Pipes admitted their preference for an Ahmadinejad victory, have urged Obama to make demands of the Iranian leadership and levy sanctions against the regime.

But Iranian-American journalist and author Hooman Majd, one of the best-connected Western journalists in Iran, rejects the neoconservative mantras as an example of ignorance about Iran and an inability to get over the Bush goal of regime change.

"The neocons know nothing about Iran, nothing about the culture of Iran" Majd told Salon.com. "They have no interest in understanding Iran, in speaking to any Iranian other than Iranian exiles who support the idea of invasions – I’ll call them Iranian Chalabis" – a reference to now-disgraced neoconservative darling Iraqi exile Ahmad Chalabi, who reportedly provided some of the bad intelligence on Iraq’s weapons programs and was slated for a prominent post-invasion role in Iraq.

"It’s offensive, even to an Iranian-American like me," said Majd. "There are people who would have actually preferred to have Ahmadinejad as president so they could continue to demonize him and were worried, as some wrote in op-eds, that Moussavi would be a distraction and would make it easier to Iranians to build a nuclear weapon and now all a sudden they want to be on his side? Go away."

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Ali Gharib

Ali Gharib writes for Inter Press Service.