One of the many strange paradoxes promoted for decades in the Western narrative on the Islamic Republic of Iran – consistently repeated by so-called “Iran experts”, government officials, and the Western propaganda machine in general – is that Iran is growing increasingly unstable and unpopular (if not imploding), yet simultaneously it is on the rise and its “menacing” influence can be felt throughout the region and beyond.
Of course, the internal contradictions of this discourse are linked to Orientalist stereotypes and attitudes prevalent in the West among mainstream secular liberals, pseudo-progressives, and neo-conservatives alike, who cannot grasp the possibility of a stable and legitimate political order that is not based on Western “values”.
For such people – even those critical of Western support for despots, extremism, apartheid in Palestine, mass surveillance and cyber warfare, hegemony, liberal capitalism, plutocracy, secret prisons and torture as well as the perpetual pursuit of “liberation” through coups, wars, drones, terror, assassinations, and carnage – these “values” and “ideas” are still somehow universal. Thus, they view Western states as effectively exceptional or at least more civilised than others. Even for the so-called “progressives”, despite these characteristics that have existed at least since the rise of colonialism, in the words of Joseph Conrad, “what redeems it is the idea only”.
Hence, pundits, academics, native informants, and other “experts” in Western think-tanks and corporate media, hold discussions and write books and articles, analysing the “pathologies” of countries like Iran for the benefit of a Western audience and often with an eye towards policymakers and funders.
Pundits, academics, native informants, and other ‘experts’ in Western think-tanks and the corporate media hold discussions and write books and articles, analysing the ‘pathologies’ of countries like Iran for the benefit of a Western audience and often with an eye towards policymakers and funders.
At times they may critique Western governments, but mostly because they are not seen to be true to their values. When it comes to the Islamic Republic of Iran, though, there are no values. Hence, these people feel free to enhance Western “knowledge” and control with a free conscience, like their Orientalist forerunners.
Nevertheless, despite immoral and inhumane US and EU sanctions, along with the constant vilification of Iran by these countries or the “international community” as they narcissistically call themselves, Iran arguably continues to be the most stable country in western Asia and North Africa. Its model of participatory Islamic governance as well as its fiercely independent foreign policy has blunted Western, and particularly US, attempts to subjugate it as well as to portray it as some sort of regional if not global threat. However, it would be useful to look at the case of Syria, where the Islamic Republic is regularly portrayed by its antagonists as a threat to stability and security.
From almost the start of the unrest in Syria, it became clear to Iranians that the main objective of Western attempts to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government was to target Iran, not to bring freedom to the Syrian people. After all, the US and EU alongside the Saudi royal family supported the Tunisian and Egyptian dictatorships until their imminent collapse; in Gaza, the Palestinian people continue to be punished for voting for the “wrong” party.
During the Egyptian regime’s final days, the US vice president stressed Hosni Mubarak is not a dictator, but rather an ally who should not step down. Weeks earlier, as the Tunisian regime was collapsing in the face of revolution, the French foreign minister promised to help Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s security forces maintain order. As to Bahrain, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton refused to criticise the Saudi-led occupation and even attempted to legitimise it, while US President Barack Obama spoke about the Bahraini regime’s “legitimate interest in the rule of law”, and subtly implied that the protesters were a minority group.
Unlike these regimes, Assad had and continues to have significant popular support. While the Ben Ali, Mubarak, and Bahrain’s al-Khalifa dictatorships were unable to muster any support in the streets, during the first months of the conflict in Syria enormous crowds took to the streets in simultaneous pro-Assad demonstrations in major cities, on multiple occasions. In addition, according to a poll carried out by the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation, 88 percent of those surveyed in Syria in 2013, believed that the current Turkish government has been unfriendly towards their homeland.
While Iran was openly critical of the violence of Syrian security forces against peaceful protesters with legitimate grievances (though incomparable to the August 14, 2013, Cairo massacre), it also knew that, as in Kiev, a third force was fanning the flames by firing upon both security forces as well as protesters. This was confirmed by the report of the 300-strong Arab League observer mission led by Sudan’s former ambassador to Qatar.
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Iran became more sceptical and alarmed when the bombings and suicide attacks began late in 2011. It was obvious that extremists were carrying out the attacks, yet the militant and foreign-backed opposition along with their regional and Western backers accused the Syrian government of attacking its own military intelligence buildings, just as they later provided highly dubious evidence to prove that the government carried out chemical attacks.
The Iranians believed that a number of oil-rich monarchies in the Gulf, with Western coordination and logistical support were – in violation of international law – heavily funding sectarian extremists and al-Qaeda affiliates. For over two years the Western mainstream media, experts and policymakers downplayed and even ridiculed such claims – until finally the problem grew so large that it became impossible to hide the monster that the West and its Arab allies in the Gulf had created.
Instead of pursuing the Kofi Annan plan, which Iran had supported, these countries wrecked it as they thought they could steamroll their way into Damascus within weeks or months. Apparently, for the US and its allies these were simply more “birth pangs of a new Middle East” – or perhaps a dagger through the heart of the Islamic Republic, where innocent Syrians must pay the price. Now, over 100,000 deaths and millions of refugees later, the Western narrative often sounds quite similar to what Iranians have been saying for over three years.
Extremist and sectarian Salafi clerics repeatedly gave fatwas permitting the slaughter of minorities on satellite television channels. The Saudi-based “mainstream” cleric Saleh al-Luhaidan also said: “Kill a third of Syrians so the other two-thirds may live.”
As a result, this had become an existential threat to the people of the region. Nevertheless, it was only after tens of thousands of foreign extremists had already entered Syria through this broad multinational support network that, with Syrian government approval, Hezbollah entered the Sayyida Zaynab neighbourhood in limited numbers [Ar] to protect the shrine of the Holy Prophet’s granddaughter; their first casualty was reported in late June 2012. Hezbollah’s major involvement only began in April 2013 during the battle for al-Qusayr. From an Iranian perspective, to blame Hezbollah for entering Syria is absurd.
In any case, it is clear that – as the Iranians were saying from the start – the Syrian government will not collapse and that the only way forward is for this reality to be acknowledged. Continued support for foreign extremists and al-Qaeda affiliates is no longer simply a regional threat; it has become a global threat much greater than what existed in Afghanistan. Setting preconditions for one side of the Syrian conflict or the other simply means more death and destruction. The international community must come together to support an election where the Syrian people choose their own leadership and for everyone to accept the results.
Seyed Mohammad Marandi is professor of North American Studies and dean of the Faculty of World Studies at the University of Tehran.