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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Grandpa was ill and wasn’t keen on climbing the volcano – but we forced him up all the same

I squinted. Apart from a gleam of turquoise, the view was of one big cloud. Slowly the words started to form in my head. Just. Like. Scotland.

At first, Grandpa was sceptical about the volcano. “I used to be into that kind of thing,” he said, “but not now.” He did not mention that he was 88.

The guidebook to Indonesia – which he disdained – described how, once you got to the crater, the mist would rise to reveal a shimmering lake. His fellow travellers, my sister and I, often joked about our family’s tendency to declare everything to be “just like Scotland”. This was a living, breathing volcano. It would be nothing like Scotland.

But as Grandpa reminisced about his childhood in the Dutch East Indies, he began to warm to the idea. We set off at 7am and drove past villages with muddled terracotta roofs and rice paddies spread across the valleys like glimmering tables. We talked excitedly about our adventure. Then it began to rain. “Perhaps it will blow over,” I said to my sister, as the view from the windows turned into smears.

Our driver stopped at a car park. With remarkable efficiency, he opened the doors for us and drove away. The rain was like gunfire.

To get to the crater, we had to climb into an open-sided minibus where we sat shivering in our wet summer clothes. Grandpa coughed. It was a nasty cough, which seemed to be getting worse; we had been trying to persuade him to go to a pharmacy for days. Instead, we had persuaded him up a cold and wet mountain.

Five minutes passed, and the minibus didn’t budge. Then another bedraggled family squeezed in. I thought of all the would-be volcano tourists curled up in their hotels.

“Look,” I said to the attendant. “My grandfather is not well. Can we please start?”

He shook his head. “Not till all seats are full.” We exchanged a glance with the other family and paid for the empty seats. The driver set off immediately.

The minibus charged up a road through the jungle, bouncing from puddle to puddle. Grandpa pulled out his iPhone and took a selfie.

The summit was even colder, wetter, rainier and more unpleasant. We paid a small fortune to borrow an umbrella and splashed towards the lake. My sister stopped by a fence.

“Where is it?” I said.

“I think . . . this is it,” she replied.

I squinted. Apart from a gleam of turquoise, the view was of one big cloud. Slowly the words started to form in my head. Just. Like. Scotland.

I thought remorsefully of the guidebook, how I’d put my sightseeing greed before my grandfather’s health. Then I noticed the sign: “Danger! Do not approach the sulphur if you have breathing problems.”

Grandpa, still coughing, was holding the umbrella. He beckoned me to join him. I didn’t know it then, but when we made it back to the car, he would be the first to warm up and spend the journey back telling us stories of surviving the war.

But at that moment, in the dreich rain, he gave me some advice I won’t forget.

“If anyone tells you to go and see a volcano,” he said, “you can tell them to fuck off.” 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution