Thursday, May 18, 2006

Iran and the coming apocalypse

There's a depressing story in today's Guardian concerning a Turkish judge who has been shot dead by a lawyer. The provocation was the recent judgment where four judges upheld the decision not to promote an elementary schoolteacher because she wore a headscarf outside of work. Depressing in and of itself but also because even where there is democracy, violent Islamism flourishes and the sort of clumsy secularist triumphalism exercised by the Turkish state and more recently by France seems to damage the otherwise beneficial effect one might expect secular political democracy to have in taking the sting out of theocratic-fascist movimentos.

If you're asking what this has to do with Iran, I don't blame you but bear with me. A paper by Halil Ibrahim Yenigun, a graduate student in the University of Virginia tackles the topic if Islamism in modern Turkey, its relationship to nationalism and attempts to answer the question as to why political Islam has been so resilient. Whether his answers are satisfactory or not, I'll leave the reader to judge but I do think he makes a couple of sound observations. One is the fact that violent Islamism, in Turkey as elsewhere, cannot be explained away by shoe-horning it into a vulgar Marxist framework and claiming terrorism is solely a function of either poverty or thwarted professional ambition amongst the middle classes (see p. 41).

The other, which will raise an eyebrow or two but which I think is correct, is that political Islam is seen as an example of this-worldy success:
"When the villager of Makal tells the Kemalist teacher, "It is the other world we really need. You are concerned with this world, with its non-sense and its modern ideas. It's all humbug!" he expressed his confidence in his religion and revealed his other-worldly orientation. In this sense, Islam can not be said to have lost its status as the path towards the eternal salvation among his periphery/outsider believers. Makal's villager only cared about the hereafter, but when the Iranian Revolution took place and Afghani jihad began in 1979 in a massive resistance to the Soviets, Islam also emerged as a source of the worldly-political success for Muslims. This factor goes largely unnoticed in the literature, while almost all of the Islamists mention this in explaining the rise of Islamism."
We all know where the Afghani jihad led. You might think with the Taleban inviting its own destruction, and with the spectacle of a relieved population dancing for joy at its downfall, that the Afghani jihad would no longer serve as an example of this-worldly success. But you'd be wrong. It should be obvious by now that theocracy finds its most ardent supporters amongst those who have never experienced it and who tend to collapse the actual conditions within countries into international abstractions where the Elect are in cosmic battle with the Great Satan. Regime-change in Afghanistan in this narrative represented a blow against the righteous by demonic forces.

For this reason also, we cannot expect the utter bankruptcy of the Iranian theocracy and its complete failure to address the problems of a sophisticated and complex society to represent what it should - a this-worldly failure. And the normal disposition of the millenially-minded to see peoples and nations as types and shadows is exacerbated in this present nuclear stand-off between Iran and the United States.

There could scarcely be a better illustration of how counter-productive the US policy of shoring up secular dictators in the region has proved than the Iranian revolution of 1979. Yet there could scarcely be a better illustration of how utterly useless and oppressive theocracy is - were it to collapse internally under the weight of its own corruption. This forms part of the reason why I've always thought, and still think now, that an attempt by the United States to impose regime-change with external force would be such a mistake. It is important to see behind Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's disgraceful comments about the Holocaust and his outrageous but empty threats to "wipe Israel from the map" the attempt by a regime, in the classic authoritarian fashion, to distract from its internal problems. As Kaveh Ehsani put it:
"The domestic balance of power was tipped after the parliamentary elections of 2004 and the presidential election of June 2005, when Iran's military-conservative forces gained ascendancy over all branches of the state for the first time since 1979. But the significance of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's victory is often missed: he was not elected on a platform favouring an ideological confrontation with the west, but rather on promises to fight corruption and improve the lot of unemployed and impoverished Iranians.

It is precisely the structural incapacity of Ahmadinejad's administration to deliver on these promises that explains its demagogic, confrontational tone over the nuclear issue."
One could add that as well as having a regime incapable of delivering change, it has to contend with a population who, having already experienced theocracy, is less likely to frame their dissatisfaction with the status quo religiously than anyone else in the region, with the possible exception of the Kurds.

This position was formed prior to the present crisis with regards the development of uranium enrichment by the Tehran regime, which leaves the question: can this be sustained? I'd argue it can, or rather it has to be. Washington is giving the impression that patience is inappropriate in the present circumstances but when one considers the alternatives, it is difficult to see how they would achieve their desired outcomes. As Trita Parsi points out, the United States has gone from having what seemed to all intents and purposes no policy on Iran to having two - non-proliferation and regime-change. While both are obviously desirable, he argues that they are contradictory and that in any event, the present strategy is unlikely to achieve either: the policy of regime-change has resulted in a strict non-diplomatic stance in relation to Tehran and this, in turn, has reinforced the regime's desire to obtain nuclear technology as a means of regime preservation.

Washington's position here has lead many to assume that a military strike on Iran is inevitable. One of the striking things about this 'debate' is the extent to which various commentators have felt themselves moved to indulge in a little soothsaying. Timothy Garton-Ash has a little science-fiction number outlining the catastrophe that would unfold following a military strike on Iran. Paul Rodgers, clearly a betting man, has suggested October of this year as the date for the coming apocalypse. This forms part of a more comprehensive prophetic vision where the possible consequences of military action against Iran are explored in more detail. Meanwhile, it was Seymour Hersh that raised the possibility that the Bush Administration were considering the use of nuclear weapons against Iran's nuclear facilities.

This last notion reflects, perhaps, the understanding that in reality the range of options open to Washington are extremely limited. No-one seriously believes - or perhaps I should say, no serious person believes - that the Americans have either the will or the ability to launch a full-scale invasion and occupation of Iran, overstretched as they are in Afghanistan and Iraq. With regards a conventional strike on Iran's nuclear installations - the most likely military senario - most appear to agree that for it to be effective, it would have to go way beyond that carried out by the Israelis on the Osiraq installation in Iraq in 1981. Perhaps learning from this experience, the Iranian regime has its nuclear programme dispersed and hidden deep underground. Any conventional strike, most seem to agree, would involve hitting dozens, if not hundreds of targets. There would be those targetting the facilities themselves but also in all probability these would be accompanied by strikes against the Iranian regime's conventional forces that might be used in retalitation, either against American forces in Iraq or against Israel - along with actions designed to kill as many specialist personnel as possible. While the doomsayers might want to reflect that their previous predictions of spreading regional conflict have proved in the case of Iraq to belong to the school of Cassandra, it is surely right to assume such an action would be highly destabilising to say the least? Scarcely a risk worth taking since it would in all probability, as Christopher Hitchens says, merely serve to "restate the problem in a different form".

It is this absence of viable options that one presumes has lead people to assume the worst when the Bush Administration apparently refused to rule out the prospect of a nuclear strike. Obviously this would be, as Jack Straw was reported as saying, 'completely nuts'. That Blair was careful to describe this as 'absurd' - but not to rule out a conventional strike - has lead the conspiracy theorists to assume the latter is inevitable. But one is left wondering how plausible any of this - whether Bush and Blair have gone all 'messianic' or not. Is the American military-industrial bureaucracy really ready to let off nuclear weapons near all that oil, right next door to thousands of American servicemen? I doubt it. On the conventional front, and the supposed quest for 'legacy' that is supposed to be driving Bush and Blair notwithstanding, how plausible is it that either of these men, if they were inclined to do so, could get such a prospect verified by their respective legislatures? With regards the United States, I would be reluctant to prophesy with any certainty; in the British case, less so - but in both of them a commonly overlooked fact is that the permission of Congress and Parliament are essential. With regards the former, this has been long established. Nixon argued, not implausibly, that this was unconstitutional - but it is the situation nevertheless. Regarding the latter, a little remarked upon fact of the invasion of Iraq was that it did establish a precedent of Parliamentary consent in going to war - a fact of no small significance in our unwritten and uncodified constitutional tradition. Whether either of these heads of the Executive could gain this in their present condition, even assuming they wanted it, is by no means certain, to say the least.

Yet were they against all odds to gain it, I would still oppose it. One is inclined to agree with Hitchens when he says that the Iranian regime, corrupt and degraded though it is, cannot be considered insanely self-destructive in the way Saddam Hussein was, or North Korea's Kim Il Jong is. They have an obvious interest in gaining nuclear weapons as a mechanism for regime preservation but are not demented enough not to realise that their use would inevitably invite their own annihilation.

That this position is obviously less dangerous than the alternative is something of which I am by no means certain. And it's this lack of certainty that stands in contrast to the comment and opinion coming from the other side of the debate. The confidence with which they prophesy is a remarkable phenomenon. One might have thought we could wait to see if any such military confrontation takes place, and then to await the response from those of us who might be loosely termed the 'Euston left' before responding themselves. But clearly they are impatient - certain of the outcome, and certain too of our response. Jamie K, for example, had this to say:
"[F]ew over here will actually come out and support a first strike on Iran. They'll just accuse people who actively oppose it of not taking the problem seriously. If it takes place, they'll say it had to happen because people who opposed it didn't take the problem seriously."
Regarding the the idea "it had to happen", I trust it's clear that some of us are not of this view; with the second point, I'll join with him and predict that should this take place, such an accusation is indeed very likely. In fact, I'll make it myself because one thing that is clear already is that 'they' do not take this 'problem' seriously at all. The only danger inherent in the situation for 'them' is found in any possible response from the United States. Were it not for this, they are extraordinarily sanguine about the whole matter. Iran is not going to nuke Israel but this doesn't mean a nuclear Iran is nothing to worry about. One concern that I have scarcely seen referred to anywhere, but which I presume is a concern to the Bush Administration, is the prospect of nuclear arms race in the region. Should Iran develop nuclear weapons, others would surely want to follow suit. Key amongst them would be Saudi Arabia. Assuming as I do that one of the motivations behind the invasion of Iraq was the instability of the House of Saud, how much more dangerous would the region be with the bells of nuclear technology added on? This is of apparently no concern to these - the only source of danger appears to lie in the attentions, and intentions, of the American empire. Yet I've argued that here, the course of action it will choose is by no means certain, while the worst-case senario I anticipate with dread. But I question whether dread is the feeling that motivates the B-list prophets of the eschaton. One senses rather the joy they experience in engaging with imaginary and demonized opponents. The certainty, the secret enthusiasm for believing the worst; it is because those who pursue the millennium have a part of their souls that welcome the apocalypse. They may not say so, perhaps they can't even admit it to themselves, but they do nonetheless. Because they can't help themselves, because it is the inescapable condition of those who belong to the Elect.

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