By Sharmine Narwani
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton seems to have a tough time grasping what kids on the streets of Cairo and Manama understand with ease. Politicians – elected and otherwise – have no place to hide. Their every turn of phrase, their every move, is digested in real-time across the planet. And there is no such thing as an unsophisticated populace any longer.
When Clinton dusted off the Iran Bogeyman and paraded him around the Senate Appropriations Committee hearings last Wednesday, the transparency of her actions was almost embarrassing – especially in light of a new Mideast strategy unveiled by the Wall Street Journal a few days later: “Regime Alteration,” as opposed to Regime Change.
The plan? To “help keep longtime allies who are willing to reform in power, even if that means the full democratic demands of their newly emboldened citizens might have to wait.”
After some heavy duty lobbying by Arab autocrats and Israel, US policymakers are trying a different tack: “Starting with Bahrain, the administration has moved a few notches toward emphasizing stability over majority rule,” said a U.S. official. “Everybody realized that Bahrain was just too important to fail.”
That means Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Yemen, Morocco, Jordan and Algeria too. It is worth noting that had this policy been enacted prior to January 25, 2011 we would now be tuning in to Hosni Mubarak’s 16th I-am-not-resigning speech.
But how to silence the angry populations of key allies in the Persian Gulf, namely Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Yemen? Rallying for more representation in government, a fair distribution of national wealth, freedom to congregate and speak freely – these are all legitimate concerns that we surely defend as a matter of principle?
Drag out the “Evil Iran” card, apparently.
Conceding that “Iran has no relations with the opposition, and in some cases are in an adversary relationship with Sunni Muslim Brotherhood groups,” Secretary Clinton told the Senate Appropriations Committee on Wednesday that the Islamic Republic is nonetheless “doing everything they can to influence the outcomes in these places.”
And this is the convoluted reasoning we are to follow:
“We know that, through their proxy, Hezbollah in Lebanon, they are using Hezbollah – which is a political party with an armed wing – to communicate with counterparts in Egypt, in Hamas, who then, in turn, communicate with counterparts in Egypt. We know that they are reaching out to the opposition in Bahrain. We know that they – the Iranians are very much involved in the opposition movements in Yemen. So, either directly or through proxies, they are constantly trying to influence events. They have a very active diplomatic foreign policy outreach.”
Pot Calling the Kettle Black
Clinton’s statements were made on the same day that the The USS Ponce and USS Kearsarge warships entered the Mediterranean Sea on their way to Libya, laden with military equipment and hundreds of marines.
All this within a year of the news that the US would deploy Patriot Missiles in five of the six Arab nations of the Persian Gulf “to counter Iran (and) assuage Israel,” a country that threatens to bomb the Islamic Republic at regular intervals.
Given our provocations in Iran’s neighborhood, it is extraordinary that we charge Tehran with trying to influence regional events. But despite Clinton’s allegations of Iranian intervention in the affairs of neighboring states, the WikiLeaks Cables tell an entirely different story:
WikiLeaks on Bahrain
Because three quarters of Bahrain’s population is Shia (the majority sect in Iran) the country’s minority-led Sunni government sometimes play the sectarian card to justify the imbalances in power – and to keep the US and Saudi Arabia engaged in supporting Bahraini interests.
This August 2008 Cable shows that we know better:
“Bahraini government officials sometimes privately tell U.S. official visitors that some Shi’a oppositionists are backed by Iran. Each time this claim is raised, we ask the GOB to share its evidence. To date, we have seen no convincing evidence of Iranian weapons or government money here since at least the mid-1990s… In post’s assessment, if the GOB had convincing evidence of more recent Iranian subversion, it would quickly share it with us.”
Something to note: during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, many analysts erred in assuming that Shia Iraqis (majority of Iraq’s population), who were sometimes brutally repressed by Saddam Hussein, would switch their allegiances to their fellow Shia in Iran – and that the underrepresented Sunni populations of Iran, many of whom speak Arabic too, would likewise join forces with Baghdad. Neither happened. And it is unlikely to happen in Bahrain, where the majority of Shia neither speak the Persian language (Farsi), nor aspire to assimilate into a “Greater Iran.”
Stephen Zunes, chair of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of San Fransisco, points out:
“When disenfranchised Shia populations in the Middle East have organized for their rights, the regimes often label them as Iranian agents. In some cases, Iranian intelligence has supported these movements, although the vast majority are popular indigenous struggles with legitimate grievances. The Iranian connection, however false or exaggerated, introduces the fear of an Iranian plot to assert their influence and establish an Iranian-style theocracy. Thus, the specter of Iran is raised to bolster the argument that it is in the U.S. interest to support repressive regimes to suppress such movements.”
WikiLeaks on Yemen:
And the same is true of Yemen, whose US-allied dictatorship has long accused Iran of fomenting chaos by arming and abetting opposition groups. This Cable from September 2009 is aptly titled, “Iran in Yemen – Tehran’s Shadow Looms Large, But Footprint is Small:”
“Despite Yemen’s seemingly heartfelt concerns that Iran is backing the Houthi rebels and the ROYG’s desire to convince its powerful friends (the U.S. and Saudi Arabia) of Iran’s nefarious intentions in Yemen, it has to date been unable to produce any concrete evidence of what it says is wide-scale meddling. It is post’s firm belief that if Yemen had any concrete evidence that the Houthis had connections to either Hizballah or Iran, it would have produced it immediately; the lack of such evidence likely indicates that the ROYG lacks any real proof of such links.”
It is worth taking a closer look at some of the Yemeni government’s efforts to convince the clearly skeptical US diplomats of Iran’s interference in domestic affairs – if only to gape at the opportunism that exists in politics at that level:
“Although the ROYG maintains that Iran is providing material and financial support to the Houthi rebels in Sa’ada, little evidence has surfaced to date that supports this claim. President Saleh told General Petraeus in a July 26 meeting that the National Security Bureau (NSB) had a DVD showing Houthi rebels training with Hizballah uniforms and tactics. (Note: In a follow-up conversation, NSB Deputy Director Ammar Saleh claimed no knowledge of the DVD. End Note.) In an August 17 meeting, Saleh told Senator McCain that Iran was working against Yemeni stability because it believed that a weakened Yemen would hurt the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, both traditional enemies of Iran. In the same meeting, NSB Director Ali Mohammed al-Ansi claimed that the ROYG had arrested two separate “networks” of Iranians in Yemen on charges of espionage in connection with the Houthis and that one of the accused admitted to providing $100,000 every month to the Houthis on behalf of the Iranian government. Ansi told Deputy National Security Advisor John Brennan on September 6 that the ROYG was unable to share the evidence from this case because it was still in the courts.
(Comment: Since the outbreak of hostilities in 2004, the ROYG has used many different arguments, including the Houthis’ alleged ties to Iran and Hezballah, to attempt to convince the USG to declare the Houthis a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO). In 2008, the ROYG gave post a dossier of information purporting to show ties between the Houthis and Iran. Post passed on the file to the inter-agency community in Washington. Analysts agreed that the information did not prove Iranian involvement in Sa’ada. End Note.)”
(The use of Hezbollah as another “bogeyman” has been frequently used by various pro-US autocratic regimes in the Mideast as well as by Iranian protestors in the aftermath of the 2009 elections.)
The False Iran Narrative Has Some Specific Goals
Dusting off the Iranian bogeyman periodically has some clear benefits for policy justification – but also to raise some hard, cold cash.
Clinton’s remarks were meant to dissuade the Senate from taking an axe to the State Department and US AID’s 2012 budget – a pet project for outspoken Republicans keen to cut foreign assistance across the board.
Both Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates have made Iran-focused stops in the Persian Gulf in the past year – prompting those Arab states to bolster their missile defenses and invest in military hardware to the tune of a whopping $123 billion over the next four years. Leading the pack is Saudi Arabia, with projected arms purchases of $67 billion, followed by the UAE at $35-40 billion, Oman at $12 billion and Kuwait at $7 billion.
But today, with populations in Bahrain, Yemen and Saudi Arabia demanding regime change and/or fundamental shifts in governance, the US’s well laid plans are threatening to unravel. And so out comes the Iran bogeyman yet again – but this time to convince us all that democracy can and should wait.
When I first read the Wall Street Journal piece on Washington’s new Mideast strategy, I winced at the lack of inventiveness in both the phrase “Regime Alteration” (though nothing beats the sophomoric and monumentally disrespectful “Shock and Awe,” in my books) and the idea that we can somehow subvert these popular movements for change.
Now, instead, I think our policy makers have taken a dangerous step forward toward engaging the United States directly – in name, and in action – in these Mideast tsunamis. Arab populations have specifically asked us not to intervene. In doing so, the Arab anger against their corrupt dictators will morph into the Arab rage against Americans.
The biggest puzzle for me is why Washington thinks that representative government and free speech will somehow endanger the free flow of oil and undermine security in the region? Elected government seems like a solid foundation for long-term stability in what has traditionally been a volatile region.
Washington’s motivations are likely to be unpleasant – and undoubtedly follow the line of UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s recent confession that the British chose “interests over values” in dealing with the Middle East.
More likely the truth is that popular, elected governments in the region will never allow us the liberties we have enjoyed for decades – rendition centers in several capitals, parking our weapons systems, carriers, landing strips on their prime real estate, flying through their airspace on bombing missions to Muslim countries, following our lead on peace talks, sanctions, UN votes and the myriad other value-adds that dictatorships can deliver to Papa Sam.
The upside of nonintervention in these Arab revolutions is that we will finally be forced to “walk the walk” we “talk” so well. We will have to learn to respect the sovereignty of others and know our limits. That is one reason why the prospect of regime change in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Yemen sounds better by the second – it will put a seal on a new Mideast order and force us into some fundamental policy reevaluations.