by William O. BeemanReleased: 2 May 2005
Iran is Cleaning Up its Act — Why Won’t the United States Respond?
by William O. Beeman Released: 2 May 2005
The big news on Iran in the United States for months is that Iran “threatens” to resume uranium enrichment.
However, there is much bigger news regarding Iran that is being systematically ignored by the United States government and the press. Slowly but surely, Iran is quietly cleaning up its act. It is, in fact, addressing nearly every other complaint leveled against it by American politicians for more than two decades.
The principal critiques against Iran by the United States have encompassed three areas besides the continuing development of nuclear power resources: support of terrorism, treatment of women, and oppression of minorities. All of these accusations may have had some substance 25 years ago, but in 2005, they have all paled.
Iran today is transforming as rapidly as its youthful population is moving into adulthood. Its previously moribund economy is revitalizing, with new construction, manufacturing and sophisticated exports, such as passenger cars and light aircraft. If the world will wait just a few years until the post-Revolutionary generation becomes the majority voting population, all of the hopes of the United States for Iran becoming an emerging, productive economic partner for the developed world will be realized.
However, patience is not a strong commodity in Washington with regard to Iran. Hotheaded Bush-era officials like Douglas Feith and John Bolton act out their raw prejudices against the Islamic Republic with virtually no reflection on reality. Egged on by their colleagues at right-wing think tanks, they have done little more than hurl invective any time Iran’s name is mentioned. The Iran haters clearly believe that slogans such as “Axis of Evil” verify themselves. Yellow journalism, such as the recent work of Jerome R. Corsi -- co-author of Unfit for Command, the “Swift Boat” attack on John Kerry -- Atomic Iran, which accuses Iran’s government officials of stealing children to stay in power, and plotting to kill even more children by dropping bombs on Central Park, do little to encourage civil discourse between Tehran and Washington.
Examining the hoary old accusations against Iran in light of today’s world may help clear the air.
The United States has regularly accused Iran of being the “greatest State supporter of terrorism in the world.” This accusation is based on only one concretely verifiable action on Iran’s part—its support of Hezbollah in Lebanon. Other attempts to link Iran to Hamas, to Al-Qaeda, to the Taliban and other groups have proved utterly specious, and indeed completely improbable given the antipathy between these other groups and Iran’s Shi’a leaders both on doctrinal and on political grounds.
Iran was instrumental in founding Hezbullah in the early 1980’s, and continued support of that organization for some time. However, Hezbollah has matured. Its political agenda is now utterly different from that of Iran. It is the most organized, and potentially the most powerful political force in Lebanon, with 14 members in parliament, and a broad set of institutions, including schools, orphanages and hospitals. All experts on Hezbollah agree that it no longer needs Iran for its continued existence.
Now Iran has taken the hint. It has withdrawn virtually all of its support troops from Lebanon and Hezbollah. Moreover, it has been doing so quietly for the last five years.
This was reported quietly by Robin Wright for the Washington Post on April 14 of this year. Some minimal contact will likely continue, since Hezbollah members revere the Iranian revolution and are “Twelver” Shi’ites, as their Iranian counterparts. However, the idea that Hezbollah depends on Iran for its existence at this point is patently false.
Iran’s treatment of women has long been ritually invoked as proof of its unworthiness as a state. It is certainly true that Iran’s clerical leaders would like to enforce more modest behavior for women, but the intrepid women of Iran have had different ideas, and have moved to liberate themselves from the unreasonable restrictions imposed nearly 30 years ago. Fearless and outspoken 2003 Nobel Peace Prize winner and human rights lawyer, Shirin Ebadi, is a prime example of this powerful New Iranian Woman.
Westerners tend to fetishize “the veil” -- the all-encompassing black chador -- as a sign of female oppression. Today the chador is reserved for the most conservative families, and for religious rites. Modest street and office dress has evolved into high fashion. Head coverings are both minimal and colorful, and the chador has become a light, tailored frock worn frequently over jeans with embroidered bottoms.
But fashion does not tell the whole story. Seventy percent of successful university entrants are now women -- even in fields like engineering and medicine. Women are everywhere, and their power is making itself felt. On April 12, 2005, the Iranian parliament with the acquiescence of conservative mullahs ratified a bill allowing abortion in the first trimester when the fetus is non-viable or the mother’s life is in danger. This law was the direct result of lobbying by women, horrified at the death rate from illegal back-street abortions throughout the nation.
Finally, although immediately after the revolution, ethnic and religious minorities were mistreated by revolutionary zealots, today the situation has almost completely reversed. Except for the Baha’i community, who are considered heretics in Shi’ism, other religious minorities live in peace and without any restriction regarding trade, education or government service. The Jewish, Armenian and Assyrian communities all have designated parliamentary representatives.
Ethnic groups are likewise enjoying more freedoms than under the Pahlavi regime. School instruction and publication is now undertaken in long-repressed Kurdish, Azerbaijani, Baluchi and Arabic languages in addition to Persian. Other local languages may follow.
It should be noted that Iran’s human rights record for political dissidents is far from admirable, but interestingly, this has not been a point on which the United States has ever pressed Tehran. The reasons for Washington’s relative silence on this matter are unclear, but it is clearly difficult to complain credibly about Iran’s failings in human rights in the light of Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and the American practice of shipping its own political prisoners to Yemen or Uzbekistan to be tortured.
This leaves Iran’s nuclear development efforts as the sole remaining complaint against Iran. Since there is no proof at all that Iran has nuclear weapons, or a nuclear weapons’ development program, these complaints also remain specious. Moreover, when one listens carefully to Iranian politicians, one hears that their principal concern is not anxiety about restrictions on nuclear weapons development -- it is anger and resentment that they are being singled out as an exception to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, to which they are signatories. They correctly point out that the treaty grants them the unambiguous right to peaceful development of nuclear energy, including the development of a full fuel cycle.
One might concede that American verbal pressure on Iran has been the source of movement away from support of the Hezbollah, and toward better treatment of women and minorities. If so, then Washington should be delighted. However, it seems that the farther Iran retreats from giving substance to American complaints, the more eager the Bush administration is to elevate the harsh invective, drawing line after line in the sand, however pale and undefined they may become. If these complaints are merely a pretext for violent action against the Islamic Republic, as many in Tehran believe, Iran will never succeed in placating the Washington hawks no matter how well they behave.
William O. Beeman is Professor of Anthropology and Director of Middle East Studies at Brown University, and Visiting Professor of Cultural and Social Anthropology at Stanford University. His forthcoming book is The “Great Satan” vs. the “Mad Mullahs”: How The United States and Iran Demonize Each Other.
Copyright 2005 William O. Beeman
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