Obama's Iran policy could quash popular dissent

By arming Iran's neighbours in the Gulf, Obama may damage the Iranian people's push for accountabili

The United States is ramping up its military presence in the Gulf with the reported sale of Patriot missile systems to Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, together with the deployment of two warships capable of shooting down missiles directed at the littoral states in the Gulf.

This can be interpreted in two ways. First, Barack Obama is signalling US capability and intent to an Israeli regime that appears particularly interested in taking unilateral and pre-emptive strikes against Iran's nuclear programme. Second, Obama is attempting to demonstrate that Washington is willing to take military action against Tehran.

Being seen to placate Israel, again, will only damage Obama's reputation further in the region, which has sunk steadily since its zenith -- when he delivered a speech at al-Azhar University last June.

More importantly, however, the decision is exactly the sort of US action the incumbents in Tehran need, and probably want, in order to cement their position. While Iran's leadership has survived the protests that resulted from the disputed election in June, severe discontent still exists among different elements of the Iranian population.

By ramping up the threat of military action against Tehran, hardline elements with a vested interest in maintaining poor relations with the US can wreck any renegotiation of political power in the country.

Westoxification

Since the election protests, the regime has routinely attempted to cast the demonstrations as the result of foreign meddling in Iran's affairs. A list of 60 blacklisted organisations has now been published by the regime. Most of them are foreign institutions perceived as a threat.

The country's history of interference at the hands of American, British and Russian agents helped create an anti-imperialist norm that remains popular and pervasive. The CIA- and MI6-orchestrated coup d'état against Muhammed Mossadeq in 1953 is an event imprinted on Iranians' consciousness.

The very foundation of the Islamic Revolution of 1979 was the rejection of foreign interference in Iran's affairs. Pre-revolutionary writings by intellectuals like Jamal Al-e Ahmad and Ali Shari'ati spoke of the "Westoxification" of Iran and the country's need for a "return to oneself".

These slogans transcended political differences regardless of factions' positions as Islamist, Marxist, republican or socialist, manifesting themselves in the revolutionary chants of "Neither east nor west, just the Islamic Republic" and "Independence, freedom, Islamic Republic".

Political power is in the process of being renegotiated in Iran. But threatening the regime in such an overt manner gives it the ammunition it needs to destroy efforts by brave Iranians to confront the brutal authoritarianism of those who hold sway. Iran remains a post-revolutionary state, not a pre-revolutionary state, and the upheavals of 1979 are still playing themselves out.

However, by allowing the Iranian government to divert attention from domestic matters towards the imminent threat of America and Israel, Obama risks closing the spaces that Iranians have carved for themselves.

 

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There is nothing compassionate about Britain’s Dickensian tolerance of begging

I was called “heartless” for urging police to refer beggars to support services. But funding drug habits to salve a liberal conscience is the truly cruel approach.

In Rochdale, like many other towns across the country, we’re working hard to support small businesses and make our high streets inviting places for people to visit. So it doesn’t help when growing numbers of aggressive street beggars are becoming a regular fixture on the streets, accosting shoppers.

I’ve raised this with the police on several occasions now and when I tweeted that they needed to enforce laws preventing begging and refer them to appropriate services, all hell broke loose on social media. I was condemned as heartless, evil and, of course, the favourite insult of all left-wing trolls, “a Tory”.

An article in the Guardian supported this knee-jerk consensus that I was a typically out-of-touch politician who didn’t understand the underlying reasons for begging and accused me of being “misguided” and showing “open disdain” for the poor. 

The problem is, this isn’t true, as I know plenty about begging.

Before I became an MP, I worked as a researcher for The Big Issue and went on to set up a social research company that carried out significant research on street begging, including a major report that was published by the homeless charity, Crisis.

When I worked at The Big Issue, the strapline on the magazine used to say: “Working not Begging”. This encapsulated its philosophy of dignity in work and empowering people to help themselves. I’ve seen many people’s lives transformed through the work of The Big Issue, but I’ve never seen one person’s life transformed by thrusting small change at them as they beg in the street.

The Big Issue’s founder, John Bird, has argued this position very eloquently over the years. Giving to beggars helps no one, he says. “On the contrary, it locks the beggar in a downward spiral of abject dependency and victimhood, where all self-respect, honesty and hope are lost.”

Even though he’s now doing great work in the House of Lords, much of Bird’s transformative zeal is lost on politicians. Too many on the right have no interest in helping the poor, while too many on the left are more interested in easing their conscience than grappling with the hard solutions required to turn chaotic lives around.

But a good starting point is always to examine the facts.

The Labour leader of Manchester City Council, Richard Leese, has cited evidence that suggests that 80 per cent of street beggars in Manchester are not homeless. And national police figures have shown that fewer than one in five people arrested for begging are homeless.

Further research overwhelmingly shows the most powerful motivating force behind begging is to fund drug addiction. The homeless charity, Thames Reach, estimates that 80 per cent of beggars in London do so to support a drug habit, particularly crack cocaine and heroin, while drug-testing figures by the Metropolitan Police on beggars indicated that between 70 and 80 per cent tested positive for Class A drugs.

It’s important to distinguish that homelessness and begging can be very different sets of circumstances. As Thames Reach puts it, “most rough sleepers don’t beg and most beggars aren’t rough sleepers”.

And this is why they often require different solutions.

In the case of begging, breaking a chaotic drug dependency is hard and the important first step is arrest referral – ie. the police referring beggars on to specialised support services.  The police approach to begging is inconsistent – with action often only coming after local pressure. For example, when West Midlands Police received over 1,000 complaints about street begging, a crackdown was launched. This is not the case everywhere, but only the police have the power to pick beggars up and start a process that can turn their lives around.

With drug-related deaths hitting record levels in England and Wales in recent years, combined with cuts to drug addiction services and a nine per cent cut to local authority health budgets over the next three years, all the conditions are in place for things to get a lot worse.

This week there will be an important homelessness debate in Parliament, as Bob Blackman MP's Homelessness Reduction Bill is due to come back before the House of Commons for report stage. This is welcome legislation, but until we start to properly distinguish the unique set of problems and needs that beggars have, I fear begging on the streets will increase.

Eighteen years ago, I was involved in a report called Drugs at the Sharp End, which called on the government to urgently review its drug strategy. Its findings were presented to the government’s drugs czar Keith Hellawell on Newsnight and there was a sense that the penny was finally dropping.

I feel we’ve gone backwards since then. Not just in the progress that has been undone through services being cut, but also in terms of general attitudes towards begging.

A Dickensian tolerance of begging demonstrates an appalling Victorian attitude that has no place in 21st century Britain. Do we really think it’s acceptable for our fellow citizens to live as beggars with no real way out? And well-meaning displays of “compassion” are losing touch with pragmatic policy. This well-intentioned approach is starting to become symptomatic of the shallow, placard-waving gesture politics of the left, which helps no one and has no connection to meaningful action.

If we’re going make sure begging has no place in modern Britain, then we can’t let misguided sentiment get in the way of a genuine drive to transform lives through evidenced-based effective policy.

Simon Danczuk is MP for Rochdale.