Western reporting on Iran is an example of our fascinating but increasingly tenuous connection to reality. Overall, media coverage is now so ritualized, restricted by convention and laden with hidden assumptions that it increasingly resembles Japanese classical drama or Balinese shadow-puppetry. A century from now, when scholars sift through the ashes of our civilization, they’re in for lots of fun.
In brief, much of what’s reported as happening usually isn’t, what’s happening and is reported usually doesn’t matter much, and what is missed altogether would usually be helpful for us to know. The reason is partly ideological; by the time that reporters peer through the umpteen dusty lenses of our Progressive values, and impose them on other cultures and systems, we can’t see clearly enough to find the lavatory much less puzzle out how to run a vast empire. Let’s focus on the Iran.
Myth No. 1: Iranians Regret their Islamic Revolution. They don’t, not even the moderates. America and Britain overthrew Iranian democracy in 1953, installed the brutal Shah to let them keep stealing 90% of the oil money, and he kept the countryside in stygian darkness. Refugee Iranians, in America and Europe ever since 1979, often talk differently but they were nearly all cosseted and blindfolded urban elites: ask them and none saw the revolution coming (I never met even one who foresaw it even by a few weeks).
While faith was a unifying factor in an ethnically varied nation, the revolution soon became a rural uprising and the thuggish Revolutionary Guard, etc., were resentful hicks “getting their own back.” Since then, even under the hamfisted rule of clergy and the corruption of their vast socialist state-owned holding corporations (bonyad), development has shown kindly on the hinterlands and (excluding refugees) every Iranian is proud of that. Utilities are now ubiquitous as is decent modern housing and education, and much of the country is now middle-class. Under a separate-but-(somewhat)-equal system, women are better educated and play a greater role out of the home than ever before. Even valiant and risk-taking reformers tell me they are proud of these achievements and are glad to see the pre-1979 “bad old days” gone forever.
This, plus 5,000-ish years of justifiable pride, explains why reformers publicly beg America not to keep undoing their good work by supporting former communist and royalist terrorist groups inside and outside of Iran, and radio propaganda that appalls citizens and discredits the indigenous reformers as foreign-run stooges.
Myth No. 2: Iran’s President has Car Keys. Imperial America, whose president can order extra-judicial killings as he wishes, no longer understands limited power much less a functional but flawed system under which power is distributed differently than in the West’s textbook democratic models. Iran’s President-Elect Hassan Rouhani, like the outgoing President Ahmedinejad, has no power over foreign policy, the army and Revolutionary Guard, nuclear power or restructuring government; that is in the hands of the political clergymen. Mr Rouhani will control civil administration and the economy, c’est tout, while the economy is crippled by foreign sanctions plus internal corruption and structural mismanagement. So Rouhani’s promises of bilateral dialogue with the West, and much more, may be him talking through his turban.
It may well be that he is a prudent and moderate fellow, a compromise candidate between clergy and reformers, whom the elite mullahs may see as a useful patsy to take the blame for economic hardship. Some say that Ahmedinejad was picked (as a likely candidate among similar) as an earlier fall-guy, but he was a wily politician especially on domestic matters; still, economic decline damaged him as did his endemic political misbehavior so embarrassing to many dignified Iranians.
Yet it may be that Rouhani, due to his unique electoral popularity, may become a means to “split the difference” between clerics and reformers. Ordinary Iranians, including reformers, fail to understand why their country is virtually unique in being banned by Western Powers from having peaceful nuclear power plants; nor why ordinary Iranians are punished by foreign sanctions; nor why their government’s serious attempts at negotiation are always rebuffed and scorned by the West. More of the international status quo, with President Rouhani, may divert reformist popular pressure and thwart internal structural reform by settling for a change in tone, leaving Iran fundamentally unaltered, stronger and more internally cohesive than it has been since the 1980s: the deciding factor may be Western engagement.
Myth No. 3: Shia Muslims are Nuts. Were typical readers of this website to become Muslims, they would be happier as Shia than as Sunni. Shia have saints and “smells and bells” forbidden under orthodox Sunni Islam. Iran reserves parliamentary seats for minority Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians; it may be insufficient but it is more than in Sunni-ruled nations. Shia clergy interpret Muslim law and tradition in a usually more moderate manner; there is no artistic ban on human portrayal and even (hypothetical) portraits of their prophet are on sale throughout Shia lands.
Besides moderation they are, in a structured way, more reflective, analytical and cohesive than Sunnis overall. Shia are as consistent as Catholics, while Sunnis are as individualistic as Low Church Protestants. Shia believe in respectfully adapting religious tradition to modern circumstance as their prophet might have done; most Sunni theologians call that heresy. Many ultra-traditionalist Sunnis claim that if there was no gynecology or ministry of foreign affairs in 7th Century Arabia, then none is needed or is even permissible today; Shia think that is desperately backward.
The reason is partly that Shia Islam has a structured and formally educated hierarchy as self-perpetuating as the College of Cardinals, and as open to respectful adaptation. Sunnis have no such institution and their leaders, educated or ignorant, are picked by any congregation no matter how small. Hence Shia clerics have intellectual consistency and discipline while the Sunni clergy are fragmented and often contradictory in applying faith and morals to modern life. Agree or disagree with the consistent Shia clergy in Iran, Iraq and elsewhere, but they do not have radical factions resembling the ideologised Sunni Salafis or (far worse) Al Qaeda. While Shia have different opinions they work together better, rather resembling the breadth within the Catholic Church. At least their structure and consistency make them easier to deal with.
But Shia and Catholics are equally anathema to the West’s Progressive orthodoxy that fears and despises hierarchy while supporting democracy, individualism and fragmentation. Western media, for example, are viscerally unable to understand why the Catholic Church, for two millennia protective of dogma, structure and tradition, doesn’t let (temporary, secular) opinion rule on priests marrying, homosexual weddings, contraception, abortion, etc. Viewed through these cultural biases, the Sunni team looks good, while Catholics and Shia look bad.
Then media peers through the distorting lens focused on materialism and power and it, too, makes the world look like its reflection in a fun-house mirror. Sunni despots, funding Islamist radicalism worldwide since the rise of OPEC in the 1970s, have most of the oil. Toadying to power (by no means exclusive to Progressives) led media to support the American invasion of Iraq, which toppled a Sunni despot in favour of what is becoming majority Shia rule. While Iran hasn’t invaded anyone in centuries, and only supports regional factions as does everyone else from Ankara to Washington to Tel Aviv to Riyadh and Qatar, extremely oppressed Shia minorities in Bahrain and elsewhere have struggled for very basic civil rights. So, abetted by America, the Middle East embarks on a Sunni-driven war against the Shia that, if we are very lucky indeed, won’t slide into a world-war including Russia on the side of their Shia minority-government allies in Syria.
Myth No. 4: Negotiations will Work. Talleyrand supposedly said “one can do anything with bayonets except sit on them,” meaning that people must set aside weaponry before they talk. The Western Powers have absolutely no intention of letting that happen with Iran, and statements to the contrary vary between wishful thinking and outright lies. However we must engage in play-acting to retain any Progressive self-esteem, so peace-talk is for politicians a camouflage and for the rest of America’s Progressive orthodoxy a necessary hope. It is another dirty lens that skews our perception; another ideological mask in the Kabuki or Noh Drama that ritualizes and distorts our vision but makes us feel cozy within our inherited preconceptions.
Iran, Turkey and Brazil, proposed moving all of Iran’s uranium abroad for enrichment, only to low strengths sufficient for power generation and medical use; they did so repeatedly and America mocked them. Western powers insistently mistranslate Ahmedinejad’s alleged threat to destroy Israel. In fact he quoted Ayatollah Khomeini in the 1980s, who said famously (to Farsi-speaking audiences at least) that apartheid South Africa and Israel’s mistreatment of Palestinians must be ended by History, neither by violence nor was it Iran’s job to do it. The West would rather have an enemy: it justifies a burgeoning American police-state, funds the military-industrial complex against which Eisenhower warned and distracts Americans from their worsening domestic failures; it covers over Israel’s (like it or hate it) slow-motion removal of Palestinians, Muslim and Christian, noticeable even to the otherwise dependably myopic Jimmy Carter; it gives pathetic little men pretending to lead France and Britain a reason to strut before marching bands.
But even if we escape world war over Syria, at very least we strengthen Sunni despots even when America has learnt fracking and Gulf Oil looms less important. The same despots have used their oil profits to spread Al Qaeda-style terrorist movements from Saudi to Bali to London and Manhattan. Swallowing hard at times over Syria, our media sings to America’s Progressive consensus, ideologues all, distracted by preconceptions on democracy and human rights and much else, convinced that Syria should be a Little America and everyone is everywhere as deluded as we. This comes as internet video shows a Syrian ally supposedly eating the heart ripped from a slain government soldier (no, Virginia, cannibalism isn’t Islamic).
My bet is that there will be no real negotiations with Iran despite the elections. Whether there is a contained slaughter or a global one, starting in Syria, the Iranian government which needs reform will slide into largely cosmetic changes from which it emerges even stronger and we will have helped the mullahs whom we need as enemies. Pity, as even Iran’s growing rural middle classes increasingly prefer the reformers over yesteryear’s popular heroes such as Ahmedinejad.
As Will Rogers asked, “Stupidity got us into this mess. Why can’t it get us out?”
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