The Decade of Naughts was dominated by Bush-Cheney and the War on Terror—which seemed like a post-Cold War proxy for more quagmires like the war against Vietnam. But the decade ended with a hopeful story in what often seemed like a long steady downward skid for progressives.
On the Sunday after Christmas, during Shi’a Islam’s sacred holiday of Ashura, mass protest demonstrations erupted in ten cities in Iran. We might not have paid much attention last week because, after the dramatic first shock of the post-election protests in June, we’ve gotten used to the grainy amateur reports of further demonstrations and nasty government crack-downs on the streets of Iran’s cities.
The demonstrations last week were not simply more of the same, however. Though the government crackdowns were worse than ever, there is heartening news about the opposition. For one thing, according to the New York Times, a number of different video reports showed police and Basij militia removing helmets, walking away from their posts, and refusing to engage the protesters. Also, the protesters were bolder in their opposition, and their defiance against the government forces was more direct.
In the face of fierce and violent government repression, opposition leaders like Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi have upped the ante on their resistance, despite the fact that officials called on suicide bombers to kill demonstrators and posted photos of protesters asking people to identify them for prosecution. Mousavi, whose nephew was assassinated in the protests, posted a defiant statement on Friday at his website that declared he was ready to sacrifice his life in his campaign to have the disputed June re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad overturned. In the face of government reports that he and Mousavi had fled the country, Karroubi insisted they were still at home in Tehran.
The demonstrations occurred on the sacred Shi’a holiday of Ashura, the solemn day of mourning for the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, the grandson of Mohammed. The brutality of the government crackdown seems to have impelled more religious people to support the protesters. So, it seems Mousavi has created a lose-lose for the government. If they don’t kill him, he can keep stirring up opposition. If they arrest and prosecute him, he will be transformed into a galvanizing martyr. The pro-democracy movement first coalesced in June around the martytrdom of Neda Soltan whose death on the street in Tehran fueled further opposition. Because of the fate of Imam Hussein, the Shi’a Islam that dominates Iran reveres martyrs, and the protesters have been quick in drawing links to this ancient religious tradition to sanctify their movement. They’ve even linked the current Ayatollah Khamenei with the ancient caliph Yazid who assassinated Imam Hussein.
The persecution of Mousavi or another opposition leader is likely to further energize a movement that has functioned without strong leaders. Instead, it is inspired by martyrs and led via a virtual network on Twitter, Facebook, and instant messaging. As one sign of how this amorphous leadership makes stopping the movement difficult, the government has started cracking down on the best and brightest university students.
If the opposition to theocracy in Iran jells into a successful populist movement for human rights, a democratically elected government, and a decent life for millions of Iranians, the geopolitics of the Middle East could move beyond the current intractable deadlocks. But not if the U.S. winds up buttressing the most reactionary forces in Iran.
On Dec. 24, Alan J. Kuperman, director of the Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Program at the University of Texas at Austin, opined in the New York Times that U.S. military strikes on Iran’s nuclear development sites were a good idea—and the U.S. was the best country to attack because of our superior weaponry and global bullying capacity. He suggested multiple strikes might be needed to force Tehran to abandon its nuclear program with “relatively little cost or risk.”
Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) used the Department of Defense’s Hazard Prediction and Assessment Capability software to model attacks with B61-11 earth penetrating weapons against the underground nuclear site in Isfahan—a scenario extensively discussed within U.S. foreign policy circles. PSR concluded that, within forty-eight hours, approximately two and a half million people would die from localized fallout, over ten million would be exposed to significant levels of radiation, and radioactive plumes would spread to neighboring countries and beyond.
The medical, genetic, environmental, and political consequences would be huge. Even conventional weapons might also expose Iranian civilians and others to radioactive fallout from the sites. The Cato Institute and Brookings, not your flagship progressive think tanks, have concluded the political and emotional reaction to the death of Iranian civilians could trigger a regional war, radicalize the Iranian people and Muslims throughout the world, and fan the flames of hatred and enmity against the U.S. for decades to come. Even Robert Gates admitted a U.S. attack would not end an Iranian nuclear weapons program.
Kuperman builds his case by rejecting acquiescence, sanctions, and incentives, and ginning up a case for war based on our destruction of weapons of mass destruction. We went down that road in Iraq, and that bogus rationale didn’t turn out too well for us as we attempt now to slink out of there. He also contradicts himself. He argues that Iran’s enriched uranium was contaminated–not weapons grade—which makes Iran’s nuclear program pretty useless in terms of making a bomb. But that contaminated material is the bogeyman he uses to justify strikes on Iran’s nuclear sites because they pose a threat of nuclear weapons.
Kuperman seems to have forgotten a strategy—containment—that worked against an established nuclear power: the Soviet Union. In focusing his analysis on Iran’s government and its nasty behaviors, he dismisses as a temporary setback the devastation to the Iranian people. However, reaction against the U.S. is likely to be particularly fierce to an attack on the city of Isfahan, which is the crown jewel of Persian civilization, a UNESCO world heritage site, and a stunningly beautiful home to millions of people.
Iran, a vast country with an ancient, sophisticated, and highly literate culture, overthrew the U.S. puppet Shah in 1979 and became an independent Islamic republic. It seems poised now to remove that repressive government and become a democracy. This is not the time for military attacks to drive it backward and feed reactionary and repressive forces. If Iran were to complete a revolution that used its oil wealth and other riches to aid its own people and stabilize its democracy, it would become an example that could rock other repressive governments in the Middle East and break the geopolitical deadlock that grips the Middle East. If Iran is the beginning of a geopolitical revolution that moves away from the stranglehold of colonialism and Euro-American corporate control of the Middle East, I think the next decade will be a definite improvement over the Naughts.