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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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser