A Caricature in the Crosshairs

Fear and complexity in Tehran

It’s time to talk about Iran. The last few months have seen an unprecedented increase in belligerent rhetoric of American and Israeli neoconservatives towards Iran, with calls for a pre-emptive strike on the Islamic Republic becoming more numerous by the day. These calls are generally predicated on claims that Iran is attempting to develop nuclear weapons and are often coupled with caricatured representations of the country as a backwards evil empire populated exclusively by aggressive, messianic clerics and enslaved women.

The reality is quite different. Iran is a complicated place, a frequently repressive Islamic Republic that uniquely combines religious nationalist modernity and a theocratic form of democracy. Within this political landscape, civil society and various social actors frequently contest power and authority in big and small ways, redefining the limits of acceptable dissent and interpreting religious laws in ways conducive to progressive social change.

The Islamic Republic’s “enslaved women,” meanwhile, are anything but. Today, more than 60 percent of Iranian university graduates are women, and while many laws instituted since the Revolution regarding women’s rights are retrogressive, campaigns to improve women’s social rights including literacy and pro-birth control and condom usage campaigns have been some of the most successful on Earth.

Despite the great diversity of Iranian public life today, there is one thing that Iranian actors from across the political spectrum agree on wholeheartedly: An American or Israeli attack on Iran would completely stifle this vibrant public sphere. In the face of an aggressive attack, the Iranian government would undoubtedly clamp down, and those who struggle to improve the political situation would shut down, driven by the need to avoid the only situation worse than political repression—the chaos and violence of war.

This fear is not only driven by numerous historical examples of governments under threat cracking down on civil liberties, but also by an understanding of the history of U.S. intervention in Iran and the deeply negative consequences it has had for the Iranian people. So how do Iranians see the role of the U.S. in their country’s recent history?

Most Iranians identify 1953 as the key moment in their relationship with the United States. In this year, the Central Intelligence Agency overthrew their democratically elected Prime Minister, Mohammed Mossadegh, and reinstated the Shah of Iran, a brutal autocrat who ruled with U.S. support until a popular revolution in 1979. By 1980, however, Iraq had invaded Iran and began a brutal eight-year war.

Saddam Hussein had well-documented support from the U.S. during the war, and the U.S. government was aware of his use of chemical and biological agents against Iranians. After 27 years of U.S.-backed dictatorship under the Shah, half a million Iranians were killed in a war against a dictator actively encouraged by the U.S. to do “whatever was necessary” to win, in the words of Ronald Reagan.

Since 1979, the U.S. has imposed wide-reaching sanctions on Iran. What were originally military sanctions during the 1980s were altered in the 1990s so that all commercial and financial dealings with the country were criminalized. There are very few instances in modern history where U.S. sanctions have achieved their goals; instead, as elsewhere, they have wreaked massive damage on the Iranian economy, hurting women and the working and middle classes while most members of the regime have found ways to prosper. In the last two months these sanctions have been tightened significantly. For example, the Iranian banking system has been isolated, a fact which in effect criminalizes Iranians in this country who send money home to their families.

The sanctions occur within an increasingly toxic climate of covert warfare being waged against Iran by the U.S. and Israel. Just this month, evidence has emerged that the U.S. and Israel have been aiding and funding terrorist groups active on Iranian soil and have even trained in Nevada one group that the State Department itself officially considers a terrorist group. This is not to mention the series of assassinations over the last few years of Iranian nuclear scientists that U.S. officials have pinned on Israeli-funded terrorist groups on Iranian soil, as well as sources in the U.S. government that have admitted to funding unpopular ethnic separatist groups within Iran to “sow chaos.”

Another decisive marker of American aggression for many Iranians is the fact that the United States has invaded two different countries on Iran’s borders (Afghanistan and Iraq) in the last ten years, igniting a bloody insurgency in the first and a civil war in the other. Americans should imagine what it would be like if Iran had invaded both Canada and Mexico and had its armies stationed on these borders, all the while claiming that the U.S. is a threat to world peace and must be stopped.

In all their enthusiasm to intervene in Iran, Americans must remember the provocative actions this country has been engaged in in the Middle East in the last 60 years and that numerous interventions on the side of dictatorships across the region are well-remembered by others. Attacking Iran would have disastrous consequences for the Iranian people and the quest for greater civil liberties and freedoms. As a statement signed by 200 prominent Iranian women’s rights activists last International Women’s Day reminds us, “War for us, means destructive violence committed against women and children... It signifies the silencing of our demands and civil protest." These are words to remember as the Israeli and American right tries to drag us into another disastrous war.

Alex R. Shams is an A.M. candidate in Middle Eastern Studies. His column appears on alternate Fridays. Follow him on Twitter at @seyyedreza.

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