“Iran, Orientalism and Western illusions about Syria”: A response

The following is an article followed by a (slightly heated) response I had written to ‘Seyed Mohammed Marandi’s’ piece on Al-Jazeera, dated the 6th of April. The article is quoted in full for context below.

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.

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.

Targeting Iran?

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.

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.

Minorities threatened

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.

Response (posted originally on 20th of May, with some edits)

“Ironically, the most one whom is engaging in ‘orientalism’ here is indeed yourself, for you employ a reductionism which reduces the millions who came out for months against Assad as merely ‘tools’ of Western imperial powers, being used intentionally or even inadvertently (the latter of which is still orientalist, for it assumes that they are merely foolish sheep) to do the West’s bidding. In trying to strengthen your argument’s potency it is also filled with irrelevancies and intellectually-superificial rants, stressing points that everyone knows about already (for example about the West supporting dictatorships in the Middle East) in trying to attach an element of ‘just anger’ to your argument, so to speak.

Even more problematic, you do not seem to see the irony in using the same terms as dictatorships in Tunisia, Egypt (especially now) and elsewhere have long used, that of putting the onus on a ‘third force fanning the flames’ (used for three years against the revolutionaries in Egypt) rather than the causes of the grievances, and even better, and this is the best bit, that this is ultimately all part of a Western plot for a ‘new Middle East’ (very ‘un-orientalist’, btw). Incidentally the last time I heard that phrase being used was by Tawfiq Okasha (generally regarded as a laughing stock) and Mustafa Bakry, the Mubarak supporters now preaching for the Egyptian military.

You furthermore commit intellectual shallowness by using certain quotes by extremists (as general and indicative) to strenghten your arguments (such as the preacher) whilst ignoring the very real actions of extremism taking place on the ground by both sides, especially by the regime long before extremists started to emerge as a force within the opposition. Indeed, this is not disimillar to Zionist tactics of bringing a quote of ‘Arabs want to throw us into the sea’ as their argument whilst ignoring their actual actions in reality.

You say ‘Iran was openly critical’ of the Syrian regime’s crackdown in 2011, well firstly that’s strange because I hardly remember Iran being ‘openly critical’ at the time. You then strangely try to justify that crackdown in a sense by saying it was ‘incomparable to 14th of August 2013 in Egypt’, as if the Syrian regime hasn’t killed many more civilians during those months of the uprising! Then you say ‘Iran became more spectical and alarmed’ when explosions began in late 2011. At this point I started thinking ‘this is just crazy’, how you’re portraying Iran as this innocent bystander suddenly surprised by the unravelling of this ‘plot’. Iran was the party funding the regime’s crackdown against peaceful protesters which largely only turned violent, by your admission, almost a year after the protests began!

You say that by late 2011 it was ‘obvious that extremists were carrying out the attacks… [yet] 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.’  No my friend, these ‘claims’ were downplayed because for the majority of that period they were relatively largely downplayable as the extremists were a minor faction of the armed opposition which was overwhelmingly allied with the home-grown Free Syrian Army (FSA), contrary to the myth Iran, Hezbollah and Assad tried to propgate from the very start – that there was a foreign invasion of fighters who were the source of the chaos (once again as Egypt did with blaming Hamas and ironically Hezbollah after the revolution, stating that they ‘infiltrated the country’ and Tahrir Square and attacked prisons), and they were also downplayed because as the Egyptian regime was calling protesters ‘thugs with foreign agendas’ the Syrian regime too was calling protesters terrorists and foreign agents as soon as they came out to protest. Ultimately what Iran and Hezbollah proved to us by using the same kind of PR lies and exaggerations was that contrary to our impressions and hopes of them that they were ‘different’ from the rest of the self-serving Arab regimes, they ultimately belonged to that same framework, the ‘old Middle East’.

(Just a note incidentally, do you think we all didn’t hope that Assad was different from Mubarak or Ben Ali and would respond differently? Al-Jazeera used to have interviews with Assad, and talked years ago of American attempts under Bush to attack and sanction Iran, Hezbollah and Assad. Protesters began demanding ‘reform of the regime’, not its downfall, and I remembered being much more hopeful with Assad than I was with Mubarak, I remembered anticipating his speech and hoping for a positive reaction, perhaps naively, only to be shocked at an extremely arrogant and dismissive lecture in front of his supporters in Damascus. In the end he certainly did respond differently, in a very different way though).

Furthermore, the West didn’t have any qualms in declaring many groups fighting today ‘terrorists’ later (and according to your line of thinking theoretically they didn’t have to do that, for they could have sufficed by not funding them rather than ‘put them down’ [i.e. the opposition] so to speak). The problem ‘didn’t grow so large’ out of nothing, the problem (and indeed extremism in general, as you should know professor) was a logical consequence of continued repression, weak funding for the moderate opposition as well indeed as the regime itself strengthening those extremist elements (again a tactic common to justify crackdowns), releasing prisoners during the beginning of the uprising in ‘general amnesties’ (as if this regime was well known for its kindness of heart) and even doing oil deals with Nusra and ISIS to the current day, especially avoiding confronting the latter in battle.

As for Assad’s so called ‘popularity’, based largely in the *capital* (cities which are always fortresses for regimes, for that is where their strength, elite and reliant classes as well as the security intelligence is most strongly located) and his ethnic homeland, this again is intellectual deception, for while Assad is indeed more popular than the others that you speak of – Mubarak and Ben Ali – the main reason you cite for his ‘comparable’ popularity against his unpopularity are protests, amongst whom it is common that thousands of conscripts, government workers and civil servants were bussed in (a tactic common in all dictatorships, and used in the past by Nasser), and a poll trying to suggest that 88% are somehow sympathetic to him. Is the latter point actually serious?

Bashar Al-Assad sounds exactly like Abdel Fattah El Sisi (who now is an ally of Assad), who you (and presumably Iran) oppose. In that in that very massacre you cited Sisi called unarmed protesters terrorists, bringing footage of some guys with guns and saying ‘evidence’. And the fact that you support one of those guys but not the other is indeed emblematic of the larger contradictions inherent within the logic you pose, whereby people such as yourself, as if having this nagging suspicion that Iran in fact did wrong but not wanting to admit it (presuming they are not motivated by sectarian motivations), are seemingly reduced to continually trying to find desperate defences for an indefencible position, in the process coming up with intellectually shallow arguments. By placing the onus consistently on the opposition rather than on the party with the overwhelming power (i.e. particularly at the beginning of the conflict), and by placing the onus on the reaction of (non-state) terrorism to (state) terrorism, your rhetoric also unfortunately increasingly resembles to my ears the excuses that I hear srael often coming out with, further emphasising that contradiction in Iranian policy.

Finally, you say that ‘in any case, it appears that – as the Iranians were saying from the start – the Syrian government will not collapse’. The sheer nature of such a statement just seems to indicate tinted spectacles to the extreme. The reason the Syrian government ‘did not collapse’ was not because Iran had amazing foresight, sir, but because of Iranian and Russian aid, guns and missiles rather than a crystal ball, sir.

To conclude sir, apologism, no matter how ‘articulate’ you think you can put it, is still apologism. You can’t complain about Saudis invading Bahrain (which I was against) and then support a ruthless mass murderer in Syria. Iran and Hezbollah had the sympathy of many and lost it all. This is a poor article, and I hope no one now says ‘Al-Jazeera is biased and doesn’t show the other point of view’.

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One thought on ““Iran, Orientalism and Western illusions about Syria”: A response

  1. Good response to crude Assad/Iran “resistance” fascist apologism.

    Major lies detected here: “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.”

    1. Mubarak mobilized the feloul/baltagia elements in the streets with the “Battle of the Camels” in early 2011 and these same elements mobilized around the presidential run of Ahmed Shafiq and then came out in the streets again with Tamarod to oust Morsi in favor of Sisi.

    2. Assad’s popular support is comparable in numeric terms with Mubarak, Shafik, and Sisi at roughly 35% nationwide which increases/decreases by province, city, and demographic.

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