A tale of two cities
In frightening repetition, shadowy figures are lining up, as they did before the US invasion of Iraq, to cry the carrion call of the Islamic Republic of Iran, writes Hamid Dabashi*
On Wednesday 22 July 2009, the US House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee had a special hearing in Washington DC on "US Policy Towards Iran". Ten days later, on Saturday 1 August 2009, scores of leading Iranian reformists, the most courageous public intellectuals and civil servants the country has produced over the last 30 years, were put on a grotesque mockery of a trial, charged with treason and conspiracy to topple the Islamic Republic via what the prosecution termed a "velvet coup". These two events have produced two crucial documents, one the official transcript of the hearing in the House Foreign Affairs Committee in Washington DC, transcribed in mostly conversational English; and the other the official indictment of the public prosecutor in Tehran, delivered in a clerically inflected Persian.
illustrtaion by Fathi
The peripheral presence of one person in both these documents points to a central concern in the Iranian civil rights movement that commenced in the aftermath of June 2009 presidential election. When Abbas Milani, an Iranian analyst employed at the Hoover Institution in California, appeared in front of the congressional hearing, chaired by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard Berman, the attendees must have had no clue that his name and reputation would soon appear in the official indictment half way around the globe in the Islamic Republic of Iran; and when 10 days later exactly that happened and the very same Abbas Milani was mentioned by name in the official indictment of the public prosecutor in Tehran, even the conspiratorial hallucinations of the prosecution could not have fathomed that the selfsame Abbas Milani had just about 10 days earlier appeared in the US Congress, elbow to elbow with the most notorious neocon artists that land has produced, effectively plotting the various scenarios of toppling the Islamic Republic.
Soon after his name appeared in the indictment, Milani rushed to put his own spin on it in The New Republic (the journal that brought you Azar Nafisi), making fun of the poor English of the officials of the Islamic Republic, and light of his role in the opposition, suggesting how falsely he is accused. In this piece, Milani said nothing about his appearance at the House Foreign Affairs Committee, just about 10 days before his name popped up in Iran.
WASHINGTON DC, 22 JULY 2009: "Mr Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen," began Abbas Milani in his testimony in front of the House Foreign Affairs Committee on 22 July, "Let me begin by thanking the chairman and the ranking member of the minority for affording me a chance to speak to your august gathering. The last time I talked here, Congressman Lantos held the gavel and he embodied in his life and vision the best of America as the 'city on the hill'. I am humbled by his memory."
After the sycophantic solemnity of that opening, Milani proceeded to report to the committee, according to the official transcript of the hearing, that the Islamic Republic was in deep trouble, that "no more than 20 per cent of the 70 million population of Iran... can be said to support the status quo," and that Khamenei's "days as the infallible spiritual leader have mercifully ended". Milani then assured the members of the committee that "the regime has aggressively pursued a nuclear policy that seems unmistakably bent on developing at least the technological capability of making and delivering a nuclear bomb."
Milani then places himself between two binaries he offers as flawed approaches to Iran, policies that have not served US interests best. The first flawed approach was by the "regime apologists, sometimes appearing in the guise of scholars and experts, as well as a few companies eager to do business in Iran. [They] have claimed the regime invulnerable and resolute, and the democratic forces at best dormant and bereft of resolve." These people have argued, Milani reports, that "the business of American policy is business... and as the regime is here to stay, the US must make a 'grand bargain' with it expeditiously: forfeit any attempt at regime change, offer the regime all security guarantees its paranoid vision demands, and in return expect that the regime will keep a promise it will make not to develop the bomb."
On the other side of these "regime apologists" stands "the second flawed policy [which] was offered by those who exaggerated the weaknesses of the regime. Using understandable concerns of citizens in Israel and the West about a nuclear Iran, they advocated a policy of 'regime change.'" In Milani's estimation, in between these two flawed approaches stands what he terms "smart diplomacy and smart sanctions that curtail and contain the regime's ability to engage in mischief around the world while sending a positive message of support to the democratic forces of Iran. This policy must have as its ultimate goal the idea of helping Iran become a democratic polity."
Milani warns against a military strike on Iran, not because it kills people, or that it plunges the United States into yet another murderous quagmire next to Afghanistan and Iraq, but because it "saves the day for Khamenei and his cohorts and is sure to lead to the regime's open and aggressive search for the bomb." He further believes, "based on all we know from Iranian history and human psychology, a military attack on Iran will invariably force the now disgruntled Iranians to rally around the flag, and eschew opposition to the regime." So a military strike is politically counterproductive to the US goal of regime change. Milani has better, smarter, ideas.
After his prepared remarks, Milani engages in a very collegial conversation with the members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and his co-panelists, three of whom -- Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Orde Kittrie of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute -- advocate the imposition of more severe economic sanctions on Iran, while Suzanne Maloney of the Brookings Institution and Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace were more reticent and thought Congress should wait until "the dust has settled" over the current crisis before imposing sanctions. Milani chimes in quickly and insists that the US and its allies should impose "multilateral and crippling sanctions" on Iranians and not merely "half-baked" sanctions. They are no good, he says.
The objective of the sanctions, the hearing concurs, is not just to prevent Iran from acquiring the bomb, but also to help what they term "the opposition" -- and it is right here that Sadjadpour reports to the committee that "many members of the opposition and the population actually are starting to come around. Their views towards sanctions have changed... They're starting to see value in it." Milani agrees with Sadjadpour that indeed "the opposition", and even the "population" at large, wishes for a "multilateral and crippling sanctions" imposed by the US and its allies on them.
From here the meeting gets more pointed and purposeful, for now it becomes clear that these "multilateral and crippling sanctions" ought to be part of a larger scheme, when we hear Rep Dan Burton (R-IN) comparing Iran to Nazi Germany, by way of advocating harsher sanctions, or when he adds that if sanctions did not work, Iranians "need to know what's coming next". Rep Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) clarified what was "coming next" when she told the panel, "we can do more than just sanctions," meaning covert operations in support for the opposition "so that they will have the material well-being ... to take on that government themselves." From there, Rep John Boozman (R-AR) proceeded to argue that he will support Israeli bombing of Iran, while Orde Kittrie proposed that it would be better for the United States to carry out any military action because "we have the right capacity".
Milani's idea of imposing multilateral and crippling sanctions was thus integrated into covert operations and military strikes, by Israel and/or the United States, in order to prevent the Islamic Republic getting its hands on the bomb, while "helping the opposition".
TEHRAN, 1 AUGUST 2009: About 10 days after Milani's testimony before the US Congress, the public trial of leading reformists commenced in Tehran on 1 August. A curious aspect of the official indictment of the public prosecutor is the number of times that this very Abbas Milani's name appears as a key factor in charging the accused with sentiments, thoughts, and activities designed to overthrow the regime. The prosecution, indeed, builds a case against the defendants by connecting them to Milani.
The indictment of the Tehran prosecutor-general begins with quoting from the Yunus/Jonas Chapter of the Quran (X: 21) " And when We make people taste of mercy after an affliction touches them, lo! they devise plans against Our communication. Say: Allah is quicker to plan; surely Our messengers write down what you plan." The expression "they devise plans" -- Idha lahum makrun -- is a clear reference to those whom the prosecutor- general believes had been plotting to overthrow the government.
The indictment then proceeds to praise the heroism of the Iranian people for participating in their millions in the election. This was a sign of true "religious democracy" -- mardomsalari dini. But alas, the indictment regretfully interjects, the enemies of the Islamic Republic want to disrupt and abuse this victory. It then quotes the leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, in ridiculing an "American Zionist millionaire," meaning George Soros, who had boasted that he spent $10 million and toppled the regime in Georgia. Next, it goes into theoretical details of the difference between a "velvet coup" and a "military coup". Gene Sharpe, a leading American theorist of non-violent struggle, is then mentioned by name as the principal analyst of velvet coups. Velvet coups are slow in motion, the indictment stipulates, non-violent and civil, and before you know it they have toppled the regime. The Open Society Institute, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Ford Foundation, as well as Freedom House and the Council on Foreign Relations, are part of this American set-up, the indictment self-assuredly states.
The rest of the indictment quotes "a spy who is currently in custody, and for security reasons we cannot name him." This spy had given the prosecutor more details of this velvet coup and confessed that he was part of the plot. In Israel the spy met with MEMRI (The Middle East Media Research Institute), in Europe he knows of the activities of Radio Free Europe, among other operations, while in the United States he is familiar with the Berkman Centre for Internet and Society, directed by John Palfrey, who has told the Iranian spy, the indictment says, that he is in fact a grandson of Kermit Roosevelt, the CIA contact point who was in charge of the 1953 coup. This model of velvet coup has been perfected in Poland, Georgia, Serbia, and Croatia. For Iran, the spy has reported to the prosecutor, the US has opted for the model of "elections" as a ruse to topple the regime and reinstate a secular government in its stead.
The velvet coup has a triumvirate, so says the indictment: intelligence, media, and execution. The most significant of organisations in charge of the velvet coup is the Hoover Institution, which has an "Iran Democracy Project," and it is right here that Milani is figured prominently.
"Abbas Milani," the indictment reports, "was arrested during the Shah's time because of his leftist activities. Later he converted into a diehard monarchist. After the revolution he lived in Iran for a few years, but then he left Iran for the United States, where he has written many books in which he has praised the achievements of the Pahlavi regime. He eventually became a leader of the opposition, with a marked difference with other members because of his connections to the reformists." The spy has also informed the prosecutor-general that Milani's "Iran Democracy Project" is interested in Iranian folklore, music, weblogs, and sexuality. He is also in direct contact with the leading reformists, some of them on trial, and others having left the country. "For the CIA," the indictment concludes, "Abbas Milani is more important than Reza Pahlavi because Milani is well- connected to the reformists."
The indictment proceeds with further details, weaving an account that basically amounts to the argument that there has been a well-connected, well-financed, long in duration, conspiracy against the Islamic Republic by "the West", and those on trial have been its knowing and willing agents inside Iran, and as such they ought to be prosecuted for treason and brought to justice.
BETWEEN US CONGRESS AND AN ISLAMIC KANGAROO COURT: Here we see two enduring ailments with the world: imperial arrogance that presumes that anything that happens anywhere around the globe is its business, on the one hand, and the hallucinatory psychosis of an Islamic Republic that thinks the whole world is conspiring against it, on the other.
In Washington DC, a congressional hearing brings together people with thin and dubious claims on knowing anything about a country half way around the globe (thinking that by including two native informers among them they have given the hearing an air of credibility), and with in fact a decidedly arrogant and hostile intent to malign it, with the single purpose of seeing how best to dismantle its government -- with "crippling" sanctions, covert operations, or military strikes. In Tehran, the best and most dedicated public intellectuals and civil servants of the country are paraded and humiliated on national television in a kangaroo court in order to discredit a grassroots uprising for civil liberties. Having been at times kidnapped off the streets, illegally incarcerated, at times tortured or otherwise forced to confess to ridiculous charges, with their families and friends enduring unimaginable suffering, these defendants are planted inside a phantasmagoria-laden plot to overthrow the regime. In between these two complementary pathologies, the fragile flowering of a civil rights movement is at stake and stands to suffer or survive. The Hoover Institution here represents a crucial case when the name and reputation of a right-wing American think tank -- part of what Lewis Lapham has called a "Republican propaganda mill" -- is abused to discredit a grassroots, inborn, and massive civil rights movement.
The official indictment of the prosecutor-general in the kangaroo court of the Islamic Republic is a historic document detailing the psychotic paranoia of a regime obsessively conscious of its own illegitimacy and blaming the whole world for its own troubles. To be sure, the Islamic Republic is not the only illegitimate operation prone to such paranoia. A systematically organised, omnipotent, and omnipresent "enemy" that acts as the principal trope of this indictment is identical in its vacuity and persistence with the selfsame "enemy" that kept appearing in George W Bush's "war on terror" statements. "The enemy is wounded," he used to say in the catastrophic aftermath of the US-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, "but the enemy is still capable of global operations... we will not relent until the organised, international terror networks are exposed and broken and their leaders held to account for their acts of murder." The belligerent constitution of a fictive "enemy" is where all fascistic politics thrives. "The pinnacle of great politics," wrote famously the Nazi political theorist Karl Schmitt in The Concept of the Political, "is the moment in which the enemy comes into view in concrete clarity as the enemy." This obsessive fixation on an amorphous enemy is precisely the mindset of the beleaguered custodians of the Islamic Republic.
The hallucinatory delusions of the Islamic Republic notwithstanding, Milani does indeed work for the Hoover Institution, and he does indeed co-direct an "Iran Democracy Project". The Hoover Institution, not in the estimation of that indictment but in fact as diagnosed by such leading American critical thinkers as Lewis Lapham, is a hotbed of neoconservative machination, of treacherous, imperial, militaristic, interventionist thinking, and that is precisely where Milani's services are brewed alongside such notorious infamies as Dinesh D'Souza, author of What's So Great About America, and Stanly Kurtz, author of Democratic Imperialism. Here we can also place Milani's Can Iran Become a Democracy? The question that remains valid, quite independent of any abuse of it by the illegitimate apparatus of the Islamic Republic, is what exactly is Milani doing in California directing a democracy project on Iran, from which vantage point he is then invited to advise the US Congress on the manner of dealing with Iran that may include imposing crippling sanctions, undertaking covert operations, and authorising military strikes?
What these facts, even before they are transmuted into the propaganda machinery of the Islamic Republic, entail are the imperial arrogance of sitting in California or Washington DC and deciding matters of life and death for millions of human beings half way around the globe. What Milani terms "smart diplomacy" for him amounts to "multilateral crippling sanctions", for others in his company mixed with covert operations and military strikes. What is particularly alarming about this congressional hearing is the identical terms with which it paves the way towards a repetition of the Iraq scenario, though in this case Abbas Milani is presenting himself as a creative combination of what Fouad Ajami, Kanan Makiya, Ahmed Chalabi, and Zalmay Khalilzad did together for Iraq. The problem for Milani, however, is that the ruling banality in Tehran are made of precisely the same cloth as he is, and they have caught him in his game and upped the ante. The nascent Iranian civil rights movement is caught between his machinations in the US and the charlatanism of his kindred soul, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in the Islamic Republic.
The presence of Milani in both these documents marks the identical parasitical forces that seek to distort and destroy a grassroots democratic movement in Iran, which is launched against both foreign intervention and domestic tyranny. In Washington DC, Milani helps the US Congress contemplate and plot economic sanctions, covert operations, and even military strikes in order "to help" the democratic movement in Iran, while in Tehran, Iranian counterparts weave together a phantasmagoria of foreign intervention, velvet coups, and "cultural NATO", as they term it, in order to discredit that very movement. In Washington DC, Milani and his co-panelists seem entirely ignorant of the fact that their very gathering, ipso facto, was in complete denial of -- and in fact criminally damaging to -- that grassroots Green Movement; while in Tehran, a mere suggestion of that Washington hearing was enough to discredit even more the movement. While on the surface the Washington meeting was in opposition to the kangaroo court in Tehran, they are both in fact completely identical in their militant disregard for a people and their democratic aspirations.
The moral of the story is neither to underline the undaunted proclivity of an incompetent empire to meddle in other people's affairs, nor to expose the militant paranoia of an Islamic Republic completely conscious of its illegitimacy and unconscious of its propensity to hallucinatory realism in weaving bizarre stories together (from Jèrgen Habermas to George Soros plotting to topple the Islamic Republic); nor indeed is it to mark a rather unremarkable career opportunism of a comprador intellectual. Like all hallucinations, the stories that the spy and the prosecutor have told each other in this indictment distort and abuse reality to their own advantage, and like all other native informers, Milani is after spinning his tale in a manner that sustains his frequent flyer programme to Washington DC. Forget about the political paranoia of the prosecutor-general and take Milani's "Iran Democracy Project" and his machinations with neocons in US Congress and ask yourselves what will the end result be of a hearing that speaks of crippling sanctions, covert operations, and military strikes to an already jittery and criminally suspicious regime.
In between those two distortions and above the careerism of one native informer runs, now quietly, now thunderously, the beautiful river of a massive democratic movement that will not be stopped until its destination is reached. Iranians are enduring ungodly violence these days, targeted against their body and soul by those presumably in charge of protecting them. The noblest and most courageous amongst them -- men and women, young and old, clericals and lay -- have paid heavily with their lives and liberty. Their fate will be decided neither behind closed doors in Washington DC nor in kangaroo courts in Tehran. The battlefields of their struggle are now the streets and alleys of their indomitable spirit.
* The writer is Hagop Kevorkian professor of Iranian studies and comparative literature at Columbia University and author of Iran: A People Interrupted .