The West is a career: Linking Rouhani’s election to US sanctions

Delusional careerists who laud sanctions as the impetus for Rouhani’s election in Iran couldn’t be more wrong.

Reformist Rouhani wins Iran''s presidential vote
"There is no direct relationship between the election of Hassan Rouhani and the prolonged imposition of economic sanctions on Iranians," writes Hamid Dabashi [EPA]

On August 3, 2013, President-elect Hassan Rouhani is scheduled to be inaugurated as the seventh president of the Islamic republic, a ceremony that will cap one of the most exciting and empowering events in the tumultuous history of the Islamic republic in which the Iranians managed to elect a person who has promised to address a host of their domestic and foreign woes. 

By no stretch of imagination, this or any other election in the Islamic republic meets the highest hopes and expectations of Iranian people, for they are all framed by a constitution that makes democracy legally unattainable. Be that as it is, Rouhani’s election marks a decidedly positive development in the troubled waters of the region, where the Egyptians are bitterly torn into opposing camps, while in Syria some 100,000 human beings have perished, and where millions more are thrown into the indignity of refugee camps. In a context where Iraq and Afghanistan are torn to pieces, and Saudi Arabia and its Persian Gulf fraternity club are deciding the terms of our democratic future in the region.  

Iran’s New President promo

In this and all other presidential elections, Iranians have done the best they could under the circumstances, and yet there is a sneaking murmur spreading around Washington DC that the recent election of Rouhani was the direct result of US-led sanctions. 

In a Washington Post opinion piece, published soon after the election of President-elect Rouhani, it states: “Since the start of sanctions, many have doubted whether sanctions are useful, and whether they would change Iran’s nuclear policy, but the 2013 election proved that sanctions deeply affected people’s opinions of the government’s policy of resistance rather than compromise.” 

Of course the mandatory clause of “to be sure, sanctions weren’t the only reason Rouhani won” does follow, but the moral of the story is that those who have been demanding and exacting ever more crippling sanctions on Iranian people have just handed them what appears and promises to be Rouhani’s more moderate presidency. This White Man’s burden (carried now by their Brown native informers of both genders) saving brown people from their own vices, but like all good parents they need to discipline and punish them for their own good! 

In a Rand Corporation report we read [PDF]: “the debates within Iran, and Rouhani’s election, are an indication that sanctions are making the regime reconsider its costly policies.” The author recommends a combination of sanctions and diplomacy and acknowledges that these sanctions have indeed hurt Iranian people – at which point it might be tempting to think this bit of humanitarian gesture has sneaked into the bosom of realpolitik: “Furthermore, the United States must ensure that sanctions do not lead to a shortage of food and medicine.” But the reason for this consideration? “This would be used as a propaganda tool by the regime, and could erode Iranians’ good-will toward the United States.” 

In other words, denying 75 million human beings access to food and medicine is not an evil act in and of itself, but it “could erode Iranians’ good-will toward the United States” or even be “used as a propaganda tool by the regime”. Eliminated in these calculations are millions of human beings at the mercy of grand political games, which these reports are to inform and substantiate. 

Not surprisingly, primarily pro-Israeli venues promote this line of thinking – outlets such as The Tower, who even published an article with the ludicrous title: “Rouhani’s Election Proves Sanctions Work. Boost Them Now.” These sorts of articles argue: “Israeli, American, and European Iran watchers link Rouhani’s election victory to decline of Iran’s country’s (sic) economy.” Then they admit: “This decline, in turn, is primarily a result of the international sanctions imposed on Iran since 2005 and enhanced in the last two years.” Again the evident conclusion is for the sanctions to continue apace. 

It is thus not surprising at all when Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu calls the new Iranian president a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” and demands even tougher sanctions even after Rouhani’s election. 

Reading the past to justify the future

This line of argument by the militantly pro-sanction voices is not merely to justify previous pro-sanctions policies, but to promote even more such sanctions for the future – precisely at a time when Iranians in their millions have flocked to their ballot boxes to make the best choice they can under the undemocratic limitations of the Islamic republic. Out of the top candidates, people voted for the person that is less dogmatic in every issue, including nuclear negotiation.

Foreign investors see potential in Iran mining

Sanctions are of course hurting Iran, and hurting people in particular. The “selection” of Rouhani by the ruling regime might have been influenced by sanctions, but not his “election” by the people, for among the approved candidates was also Saeed Jalili who could not care less about sanctions and was a hardliner on multiple fronts, including nuclear negotiations. 

If we were to buy into the argument that people voted for Rouhani because of sanctions, then it follows that a shortage of food and medicine had something to do with their choice, which also means that even harsher sanctions ought to be imposed. These ever-harsher collective punishments on Iranians are thus clearly designed to sustain Israel as the sole nuclear power in the region. Reading the election of Rouhani as the result of these sanctions is not just the sign of a self-fullfilling prophecy, but the twisted logic of sustaining and increasing even more crippling sanctions.  

Sanctions, however, are not in lieu of war – they are war. In a vastly globalised world, the most powerful economies in the world coming together to deny the easy flow of food, medicine and other daily necessities will eventually and consistently result in murdering people – deliberately, intentionally, and with determined premeditation – just like half million children who perished in Iraq because of sanctions in the run-up to the US-led invasion, occupation, and destruction of Iraq. 

The ruling regime in the Islamic Republic has more than its share of blame in a decidedly ideological positioning that denies it a strong home front and weakens its abilities abroad. But, what exactly are these economic sanctions supposed to do – to hasten the demise of the Islamic republic and promote democracy? As Mina Khanlarzadeh has just argued in a brilliant new essay:

“The violence resulting from economic sanctions against targeted people is falsely framed as a force that politicizes and revolutionizes them against their state… [But] i n the case of economic sanctions, the relation between the targeted people and their oppressors is not a relation of power, but rather, a relation of violence. While the relation of power can be resisted from multiple points and acts on people’s actions, the relation of violence doesn’t leave a space for escape and resistance and it acts directly on people’s lives, in the case of economic sanctions, through unavailability of basic necessities and constant threats of war. As a result, targeted people do not have the power to challenge and reverse their relation with their oppressors, and they would have a much harder time formulating a resistance that would turn relations of violence into relations of power.”

The fact is that these sanctions weaken the democratic resolve and that there is no direct relationship between the election of Hassan Rouhani and the prolonged imposition of economic sanctions on Iranians.

The missing link between Rouhani’s election and the US-led crippling sanctions on Iranians are not these sanctions but a band of careerists poised to fabricate delusions that keeps them employed. The fact is that the US is an empire with no hegemony, and its destiny is anything but manifest. It is a brute, self-indulgent, and thinly informed aggregate of lobbies and interests, with no cultivated common intelligence, no critical judgment informing its visceral militarism, with its most caring citizens like Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden either in jail or running homeless around the globe. 

Meanwhile, the hired guns and native informers it recruits from failed academics and morally compromised Johnny-come-lately expats will continue to tell its decision makers what they want to hear and not what they ought to know: this is a post-American world, this is not an “American century”.

New horizons are fast dawning upon the world and newer worlds are emerging in which 300 million human beings who in one way or another call themselves “Americans” can get to join the fold of humanity, share its fears, hopes, and dreams, and once and for all abandon the delusion of being “a Shining City on a Hill”. It is a very dangerous delusion that has cost the world dearly – the delusion that keeps camouflaging itself as “the West”.  

The banal careerists who serve that delusion may appear ridiculous and gaudy on the first sight – but monstrous dangers lurk in the shadow of their banality. Benjamin Disraeli once famously said, “the East is a career” – a colonialist dictum that Hannah Arendt overturned into her revelatory reading in Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963) of the banality of careerism. But in the age of globalisation, banal careerism knows no East or West anymore, for today “the West” too is a career. 

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York. He is the author of Iran: A People Interrupted (2008)