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.
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.