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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Boris Johnson is right about Saudi Arabia - but will he stick to his tune in Riyadh?

The Foreign Secretary went off script, but on truth. 

The difference a day makes. On Wednesday Theresa May was happily rubbing shoulders with Saudi Royalty at the Gulf Co-operation Council summit and talking about how important she thinks the relationship is.

Then on Thursday, the Guardian rained on her parade by publishing a transcript of her Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, describing the regime as a "puppeteer" for "proxy wars" while speaking at an international conference last week.

We will likely never know how she reacted when she first heard the news, but she’s unlikely to have been happy. It was definitely off-script for a UK foreign secretary. Until Johnson’s accidental outburst, the UK-Saudi relationship had been one characterised by mutual backslapping, glamorous photo-ops, major arms contracts and an unlimited well of political support.

Needless to say, the Prime Minister put him in his place as soon as possible. Within a few hours it was made clear that his words “are not the government’s views on Saudi and its role in the region". In an unequivocal statement, Downing Street stressed that Saudi is “a vital partner for the UK” and reaffirmed its support for the Saudi-led air strikes taking place in Yemen.

For over 18 months now, UK fighter jets and UK bombs have been central to the Saudi-led destruction of the poorest country in the region. Schools, hospitals and homes have been destroyed in a bombing campaign that has created a humanitarian catastrophe.

Despite the mounting death toll, the arms exports have continued unabated. Whitehall has licensed over £3.3bn worth of weapons since the intervention began last March. As I write this, the UK government is actively working with BAE Systems to secure the sale of a new generation of the same fighter jets that are being used in the bombing.

There’s nothing new about UK leaders getting close to Saudi Arabia. For decades now, governments of all political colours have worked hand-in-glove with the arms companies and Saudi authorities. Our leaders have continued to bend over backwards to support them, while turning a blind eye to the terrible human rights abuses being carried out every single day.

Over recent years we have seen Tony Blair intervening to stop an investigation into arms exports to Saudi and David Cameron flying out to Riyadh to meet with royalty. Last year saw the shocking but ultimately unsurprising revelation that UK civil servants had lobbied for Saudi Arabia to sit on the UN Human Rights Council, a move which would seem comically ironic if the consequences weren’t so serious.

The impact of the relationship hasn’t just been to boost and legitimise the Saudi dictatorship - it has also debased UK policy in the region. The end result is a hypocritical situation in which the government is rightly calling on Russian forces to stop bombing civilian areas in Aleppo, while at the same time arming and supporting Saudi Arabia while it unleashes devastation on Yemen.

It would be nice to think that Johnson’s unwitting intervention could be the start of a new stage in UK-Saudi relations; one in which the UK stops supporting dictatorships and calls them out on their appalling human rights records. Unfortunately it’s highly unlikely. Last Sunday, mere days after his now notorious speech, Johnson appeared on the Andrew Marr show and, as usual, stressed his support for his Saudi allies.

The question for Johnson is which of these seemingly diametrically opposed views does he really hold? Does he believe Saudi Arabia is a puppeteer that fights proxy wars and distorts Islam, or does he see it as one of the UK’s closest allies?

By coincidence Johnson is due to visit Riyadh this weekend. Will he be the first Foreign Secretary in decades to hold the Saudi regime accountable for its abuses, or will he cozy up to his hosts and say it was all one big misunderstanding?

If he is serious about peace and about the UK holding a positive influence on the world stage then he must stand by his words and use his power to stop the arms sales and hold the UK’s "puppeteer" ally to the same standard as other aggressors. Unfortunately, if history is anything to go by, then we shouldn’t hold our breath.

Andrew Smith is a spokesman for Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT). You can follow CAAT at @CAATuk.