War by other means

Military strikes and sanctions are not the best way to support regime change in Iran.

Obama signs Iran Sanctions Act in Washington
Sanctions on Iran are 'the extension of the military logic by economic means', says author [Reuters]

New York, NY – Mr Nicholas D Kristof of the New York Times has gone to Iran and graced our city’s “Paper of Record” with a column: Pinched and Griping in Iran. Reading this column, one would have been reminded of Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad (1869), minus the splendid humour, were we to ignore the dire circumstances in which we live and the catastrophic implications of such shallow and irresponsible journalism.

This is journalism at the de facto service of a bewildered empire, a journalism that does not only fail to raise very basic and simple questions about dangerous policies of the journalist’s home country but that has in fact become the effective extension of imperial wars by other means.

Kristof’s visit coincides with the latest round of talks between Iran and the “5+1” group on the pending nuclear issue. As Al Jazeera reports, “in Moscow, the six powers – United States, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany – are again expected to push Tehran to address their most pressing concern, its enrichment of uranium to 20 per cent fissile purity … The consequences of failure could be devastating, amid fears that Israel could bomb Iran if no diplomatic solution is found, intensifying regional tensions and pushing oil prices higher”.

In these circumstances, the gist of Kristof’s column is this: “… with apologies to the many wonderful Iranians who showered me with hospitality, I favour sanctions because I don’t see any other way to pressure the regime on the nuclear issue or ease its grip on power. My takeaway is that sanctions are working pretty well.”

Journalism… is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations.

– George Orwell

You may want to read that sentence again: The man goes to Iran and partakes in his hosts’ generosity and hospitality and sees with his own eyes their suffering because of the increasingly crippling economic sanctions that his elected officials are inflicting on them. He then gets on the plane, comes back, and writes a column endorsing those sanctions, and out of the goodness of his liberal heart he offers his apology!  

Forget about indecency, ingratitude and outright moral depravity – what exactly is the difference between that piece of journalism and giving eyewitness advice to the US military and its diplomatic extension? Instead of just relying on drones and satellite intelligence gatherings, the American military machinery can also rely on Kristof’s journalism. What self-respecting journalist would do something like that?

Is the function of journalism in a democracy to question and scrutinise the ruling regime of knowledge and power formulated by a warring state, or to validate, corroborate, manufacture eyewitness support and thus to endorse and advance them? Is the “Paper of Record” that has given us the scandalous case of Judith Miller – the disgraced American journalist who aided and abetted the war crimes of the Bush administration by manufacturing false evidence in the run-up to the US-led invasion of Iraq – giving a new meaning to “yellow journalism”? “Journalism,” said George Orwell, the author of Animal Farm and 1984, “is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations”.

It is not just that piece of military advice that Kristof provides to the Pentagon that is at issue here. How he gets there matters even more.

Sanctions hurt the wrong people

The point of the column is quite clear: “To be blunt, sanctions are succeeding as intended: They are inflicting prodigious economic pain on Iranians and are generating discontent.”

Kristof interviews factory owners and other businessmen in Tehran or Tabriz who inform him of the hardship people are enduring because of the Israeli-instigated and US- and EU-led sanctions against Iran.

He reports: “Western sanctions have succeeded in another way: Most blame for economic distress is directed at Iran’s own leaders, and discontent appears to be growing with the entire political system.”

Sanctions threaten ancient tradition in Iran

I have no clue where Kristof has been over the last few decades, but he would have done well to read his colleague Roger Cohen’s excellent columns on the Green Movement in Iran before he flew to Tehran, to learn that “discontent with the entire political system” has been brewing in Iran over the last 30 years.

The last time the discontent boiled over into massive street demonstrations, and Roger Cohen was there to narrate them, was in the course of the post-presidential election crisis three years ago. Scores of the protests’ leaders and activists are currently suffering in the bloody dungeons of the Islamic Republic.

“I regret this suffering,” Kristof shares with us his liberal humanism regarding the hardship of ordinary people, “and let’s be clear that sanctions are hurting ordinary Iranians more than senior officials. I’m also appalled that the West blocks sales of airline parts, thus risking crashes of civilian aircraft. Yet, with apologies to the many wonderful Iranians who showered me with hospitality, I favour sanctions because I don’t see any other way to pressure the regime on the nuclear issue or ease its grip on power. My takeaway is that sanctions are working pretty well.”

We are to feel grateful to him for this final thought:

“This success makes talk of a military strike on Iranian nuclear sites unwise as well as irresponsible. Aside from the human toll, war would create a nationalist backlash that would cement this regime in place for years to come – just when economic sanctions are increasingly posing a challenge to its survival. No one can predict the timing, but Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen have shown that unpopular regimes that cannot last, don’t.”

What possible scenario could the New York Times columnist be imagining here – that people will get so hungry and desperate that they will just pour into streets and storm into Khamenei’s residence and topple the regime?

The logic is delusional. What are these crippling sanctions but war by other means – and how in heavens are the people made so desperate for their daily bread to care for liberty and change their own regime? This newest round of economic sanctions were imposed by the US and EU on the heel of the regime’s massive and brutal crackdown on the opposition. The sanctions have, in fact, allowed the ruling regime to blame foreigners for their own incompetence, with perfect justification, and wipe out all but the remnants of opposition from the streets and squares of the capital and other cities. “The human toll” is the immediate effect of these sanctions, by Kristof’s own admission, and the people’s need to address their most basic daily needs is the condition that will “cement this regime in place for years to come”. Elementary, my dear Kristof!

Sanctions are hurting the ordinary people, the very same people who poured in their millions into the streets as early as three years ago demanding their civil liberties and shaking the tyrannical theocracy to its foundations. The very same students who mobilised against the regime are now paralysed by the economic sanctions that have interrupted the flow of their finances and cancelled their student visas.

Sanctions are not a substitute for military strikes. They are the extension of the military logic by economic means. Sanctions are integral to a larger, concerted assault against Iran that includes, but is not limited to, financing and training discredited oppositional forces like Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), cyber attacks with viruses like Flame, aiding separatist movements in places like Baluchistan, and the assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists.

Even providing financial support to the least gifted members of the opposition residing abroad – though they may appear ridiculous with their pidgin English and expensive SUVs driving on the highways of Los Angeles – can potentially become handy errand boys in any US-led plot for “regime change” in Iran. Sanctions are war by other means, and in fact, so far as civilian suffering is concerned, are worse than targeted military strikes against nuclear facilities in Iran – if the worse-case scenario of catastrophic nuclear fallout does not to come to pass.

War by other means

In a subsequent column, Kristof tries to correct his vision – and thus reveals much more than he intends:

“My road trip across Iran leaves me convinced that change will come here, too, if we just have the patience not to disrupt the subterranean forces at work: rising education, an expanding middle class, growing economic frustration, erosion of the government monopoly on information. My hunch is that if there is no war between Iran and the West – which would probably strengthen the regime – hard-liners will go the way of Mao, and Iran will end up looking something like Turkey.”

This is the drone logic of President Obama extended into liberal journalism: withdraw the US troops from the public eye, appear presidentially peaceful and yet increase drone bombing, prepare a secret “kill list”, and then leak the news to the press so that you continue to appear soft and gentle to your friendly voters and yet tough and decisive to your domestic detractors.  

“Israel, the principal culprit behind warmongering against Iran… is the single most dangerous garrison state in the region with more than half a century of incessant war to its credit.

Outside the cloak-and-dagger politicking of an election year, sanctions are not a substitute for war – they are war. Sanctions are the prelude and postscript of war, war by other means, the indiscriminate collective punishment of an entire nation in lieu of aerial bombing or land and sea assault. The Clinton administration’s sanctions on Iraq were responsible for the deaths of half a million children out of the 26 million people of Iraq, long before Donald Rumsfeld’s campaign of “shock and awe” began to rain death and destruction on hundreds of thousands more Iraqis.

The former USsecretary of state, Madeline Albright, thought it just fine for those half million Iraqi children to perish to pave the way for the US imperial designs in the region. And evidently Nicholas Kristof, who has punctiliously calculated how many miles he has travelled in Iran (“my 1,700-mile road trip across Iran,” he proudly reports), can also calculate how many Iranian kids will perish under these crippling sanctions in a population of 75 million.

But why would a seemingly educated and even liberal man not see this, you may wonder? Why is it that he does not “see any other way to pressure the regime on the nuclear issue or ease its grip on power”? Is this intentional or unintentional blindness? Why is he incapable of seeing the proverbial elephant in the room?

The answer is very simple. All this flawed logic is because in our city’s “Paper of Record”, some very basic questions that any sane person asks these days are not safe to ask – such as the simple fact that Iran does not have a nuclear bomb, but Israel does. Israel, the principal culprit behind warmongering against Iran, the real “1” behind the camouflage of the “5+1”, is the single most dangerous garrison state in the region, with more than half a century of incessant war to its credit. A nasty and repressive regime towards its own citizens, the Islamic Republic is a bewildered pussycat compared to the vicious killing machine that calls itself Israel.

People like Kristof are mentally trapped and intellectually crippled never to raise those kinds of questions (it would be professionally hazardous to them), and thus they keep playing the game in the field established by their “Paper of Record”, and make a fool out of themselves by chasing after their own tail to avoid the real issue.

Neither crippling sanctions, nor more blatant military strikes, nor dispatching useless drones, nor wasting money on the useless expat “opposition”, but a regional nuclear disarmament – that begins with asking Israel to dismantle its massive stockpile – is how to prevent Iran or any other country in the region from going nuclear, and how to let Iranians decide the fate of their illegitimate theocracy. But do not hold your breath for any such simple logic from any columnist from our “Paper of Record”.

Why, you may wonder, should anyone care what the parochial columnist of an increasingly provincial paper thinks or writes, except for the fact that the columnist and his paper are closest in political affinity to the murderous military machinery that can, with the drop of a presidential decree, kill masses of innocent people? That is the undertone of the otherwise irrelevant provincialism that passes for journalism in our city.

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York. Among his most recent books is Iran: A People Interrupted (New Press, 2008).