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On the Iran aftermath

So, evidently, you can get away with murder. It looks as though a further escalation in the ongoing war between Iran and the US has been avoided – mainly thanks to Iran NOT responding in kind to the recklessly unhinged behaviour by the United States. Given the massive outpouring of public grief in Iran over the murder of Qassem Soleimani, some reciprocal action by Iran was necessary, but (so far) it has been almost entirely symbolic in nature.

Meaning : Iran announced beforehand that it was about to fire some missiles and then aimed them at sprawling US bases that it knew would be able to intercept them, or where the risk of killing Americans would be low to non-existent. Even when announcing the missile firings, Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tweeted that this ineffectual action “concluded” the Iranian response to the murder of its most popular and capable leader.

War, of course, has not been averted. This particular war just happens to be so heavily one-sided that the American public hasn’t yet realised it is happening, and have felt no pain from it. It has been a bit like those business cycles of upturns and downturns that bank economists rattle on about. Really? For many working class Maori and pakeha, there is a perpetual recession going on. Iranians can sympathise.

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For the record, the US has been waging war on Iran since mid-2018 in the shape of (a) diplomatic war against the anti-nuclear treaty to which Iran was fully compliant (b) an illegal economic blockade aimed and destroying the Iranian economy and turning the people against the government. Now, the US has begun (c) assassinating Iran’s leaders. Last week, it did so in a foreign country in which Suleimani was travelling on a commercial airline on a diplomatic passport, at the invitation of the Prime Minister of Iraq - reportedly to discuss a proposal by the Saudis intended to resolve the recent unrest inside Iraq.

Interestingly, Foreign Minister Winston Peters made no official comment about the murder of Suleimani or about the subsequent threat by US President Donald Trump to bomb World Heritage cultural sites in Iran – which would in itself, have been a war crime. For someone who likes to flatter himself as a defender of protocol and a promoter of respect for the legal niceties, Peters’ silence has hardly been a proud moment in the history of our “independent” foreign policy. Ironically, MFAT’s only comment came when Iran threatened to retaliate, at which point New Zealand urged restraint.

Mafia politics

All of the past week’s events have been entirely consistent with the behaviour we’ve come to expect from the gangster in the White House. Like a Mafioso, Trump has used the presidency to enrich himself and his family. He has treated international alliances as a protection racket to shake down America’s allies – including New Zealand, which has been blackmailed by threat of US sanctions to abandon its booming $200 million annual trade with Iran.

So we shouldn’t be too surprised that this Mafia don is now ordering hits on foreign leaders. In passing though, it is worth noting that America hasn’t always acted in such fashion. In a letter that he wrote to James Madison in August 1789, Thomas Jefferson stressed the need for the US to respect allies (like France) that had stood beside it in the past, before going on to cite his sense of relief that the United States had buried the dark principles – “assassination, poison, perjury etc” – that used to govern how nations dealt with one another. In Jefferson’s view:

“All of these were legitimate principles in the dark ages which intervened between antient & modern civilization, but [they are] held in just horror in the 18th century.”

Yet here we are in the 21st century, in the new Dark Ages that Trump is presiding over. A time when assassinating foreign leaders is once again being normalised.

How It Happened

It is probably worth recalling how the hit on Soleimani evolved.

When an Iraqi militia with ties to Iran staged a rocket attack in early December 2019 that killed a U.S. contractor, Trump responded with airstrikes against the militia camps that killed some two dozen Iraqis. Pro-Iranian Iraqi demonstrators proceeded to besiege the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, although with no loss of life. The demonstrators eventually dispersed, and the situation seemed to be deescalating. But then Trump approved the assassination of Suleimani, a very senior and highly respected Iranian official, in Baghdad early Friday morning.

Reportedly, it was Trump’s outrage at seeing the television footage of the fleeting US Embassy incident that triggered his decision to order the Suleimani hit. Like the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland, “ off with his head” seems to be the default setting of this President. Previous Presidents ( George W. Bush, Barack Obama) had rejected the targeting of Suleimani, although this reluctance was motivated (to some extent) by the world’s previous dependency on Iranian oil. Yet now that the US blockade has reduced Iran’s oil exports to a trickle, murdering Suleimani poses far less of a risk to global markets. Off with his head!

The killing has however, united Iran in grief.

The millions who poured into the streets to pay their respects at his funeral were an indication of the affection felt for Suleimani – who was widely seen as being almost uniquely patriotic, intelligent and free from corruption. (No small thing given the widespread resentment of mullahs seen to be feathering their own nests.) This extensive University of Maryland/Iran Poll 2019 survey of Iranian public opinion had this to say (at p.36) about Suleimani:

This survey asked respondents about their attitudes toward seven prominent political figures, among whom Major General Qasem Soleimani, a major general in the Revolutionary Guards and the commander of its Quds Force, was by far the most popular. In August 82% viewed him favorably, with three in five (59%) very favorable toward him. Since January 2016 when this question was first asked, about three quarters of Iranians have seen Soleimani positively. This is also true of those under 25 (77%) and 25 to 34 (80%).

Mafia politics again. Just as Trump pressured Ukraine for dirt on his political enemies for his own personal advantage – be a shame if anything happened to your aid budget if you don’t do this favour for me – the Sulemaini hit was purely about securing personal advantage. A ‘wag the dog’ moment to distract the media/public attention from his looming impeachment.

Respect, Respect

Sadly this morning, Iran’s Foreign Minister was stressing the need for the US to begin treating Iran with respect. As he put it, Iran sought a relationship “not based on threats and not based on sanctions, but on respect.” This would be consistent with the values (embodied in the Farsi term nafs) that have governed Iran’s self-image - and its foreign policy dealings with outsiders – for centuries.

The most common usages are etemad be nafs, which means self-confidence; shekast-e nafs, which means “broken self” — essentially, modesty; and ezat-e nafs, which denotes self-respect, or simply “pride.” Iranians have long used these concepts to evaluate the virtues and deficiencies of their leaders. For example, for all his apparent vanity, Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi had too fragile a sense of self — he lacked sufficient etemad in his nafs, an Iranian might say — to face down serious threats to his rule.

Some Iranians have never forgiven the Pahlavi dynasty for this abdication of proper nafs; in their view, the shah undermined his dynasty’s legitimacy and power through his insufficient self-respect. By contrast, most Iranians today — even religious ones — remember fondly the secular nationalist Mohammad Mossadeq, the shah’s nemesis in the 1950s, because his sense of pride (or ezat-e nafs) was something the whole nation could partake in. Rather than a narcissistic expression of ego like the shah’s mannered self-regard, Mossadeq showed his ezat-e nafs by insisting that Iran should not depend on the largesse of outside powers, which he and most of his compatriots believed would inevitably mean being exploited by them. Mossadeq’s shekast-e nafs — expressed in his penchant for staying in bed for days, taking meetings in his pajamas, and even fainting in public — was also endearing to Iranians, who value modesty as much as martyrdom.

The values embodied by the ezat-e nafs principle also mean that when pushed, Iranians will push right back. Pride demands it. The public affection for Suleimani was based on the combination of his modesty and his determination to protect Iran from foreigners intent on its subjugation.

This is an entirely different worldview than the one held by the deal-maker in the White House, for whom everything is up for grabs, by any means (or force) necessary. For Iranians, the demonising of their country by the Americans feels deeply unjust, and it comes on top of the decades of their humiliation by America’s ignoble puppet, the Shah. Obviously though, Teheran will never receive that respect from a Trump White House that – this morning – continued to describe Iran in Orwellian terms as the world’s greatest exporter of terrorism, intent on building a nuclear weapon, Suleimani as being on the brink of orchestrating attacks on Americans etc etc

These are lies, impure and simple, and they form part of the estimated 15,413 recorded lies (and counting, at a rate of nearly 15 a day) that have characterised the 1,055 days of this presidency. If George Washington couldn’t tell a lie, Trump seems incapable of telling the truth. Everything that emanates from the White House is skewed to his personal self-interest, and there is ( surely) no good reason for anyone ( media included) to treat the next lie with the same solemnity that one treated the last one. Yet the media keeps repeating the lies as part of his journalistic duty, and by doing so, it spreads them.

By the time that the fact checkers plod along and arrive on the scene – and point out that actually, Saudi Arabia has been the world’s biggest exporter of terrorism, Iran has minimal influence and force projection in the Middle East, there is no evidence that Sulemaini was planning terrorist acts etc etc.., the lies have long ago reached their audience.

At this point in time, the best elements in the US and global media – including RNZ – remain trapped in the role of spreading lies and disinformation on their news bulletins. Trump is not the only source of the problem. The Vox news service has usefully tabulated the litany of the lies that Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have been promoting about Iran during the current crisis.

This Slate article about Pompeo lying about Iran is even more damning.

We are going to see a lot more of the same problem here too, during this year’s election campaign. Giving equal time to the liars from each party would be an inadequate response, given that the majority of the lies and disinformation problem (worldwide) emanate from the centre-right of the political spectrum. A few months ago, the Columbia Journalism Review tried (and failed) to resolve the basic dilemma – of how to report the lies and disinformation, without simultaneously serving as a megaphone for the troll in the White House:

There are no satisfying answers. But the idea of escalation feels important: it does currently seem like Trump goes fishing for outrage, gets it, then leverages it into further outrage. It can feel, at times, like there’s nothing we can do to stop that: it’s the media’s job to call out outrageous things public officials do; accountability demands it. If we look carefully, however, there might be a middle path between all-out frenzy and actually-we-should-just-ignore-him contrarianism. The president has the power to set the agenda, but so does the press. When the president’s agenda smells like a bad-faith effort to manipulate us, we have the power, at least, to address it on our terms. Ignoring lies doesn’t serve news consumers. But feeding trolls doesn’t, either.

That’s theoretically possible when Trump is just lying about the weather, or even when he is just corruptly using his powers of office. But when he’s lying to rationalise a murder that threatens to trigger a wider war in the Middle East, then the stakes involved make it an unavoidable problem. One that the media so far, has developed no effective means to combat.

Footnote : The definitive article on why civilised nations don’t and shouldn’t indulge in murdering each other’s leaders ( obviously, there’s a risk of blowback and of chickens coming home to roost) is this one, written 20 years ago by the US academic Ward Thomas.

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