‘Americans, spies and Persians’

Watching the violent suppression of the protests in Iran from a distance and the paranoia of the authorities who have blamed the troubles on foreign «agents,» I remembered Saddam Hussein in his last moments, when his executioners were pulling the noose over his head. The murky images from a cell-phone camera on that December morning in 2006 showed the former Iraqi president cursing «Americans, spies and Persians» in his last seconds. Saddam had lived his life with death, he had clambered to power as a killer and he presided over a regime that was based on his absolute power, on fear and death. In such conditions, paranoia is a natural state – everyone is an enemy. So it was most interesting that, right at the end, Saddam very calmly named his enemies: the Americans who had invaded Iraq, captured him and handed him over to his executioners, the spies – real or imagined – who had always existed near him and always paid with their lives when caught, and the «Persians,» who were not only the age-old rivals of the Arabs across the border of the land now known as Iraq, but also a derogatory reference to the majority of the Iraqi people, the Arabs who follow the Shiite dogma that dominates in Iran and who, until the American invasion, were under the Sunni minority’s heel. In three words, Saddam encapsulated his country’s long history, its domestic tensions and the complex relations with allies and enemies. It’s worth remembering that until 1990, when Iraq invaded Kuwait, the United States was Iraq’s chief ally in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, which cost hundreds of thousands of lives. The Americans’ entanglement in the region followed that of the British, who had drawn borders, set up governments and brought down others and, generally, (especially before and after World War I) had sown the seeds of endless conflict. Of course, from prehistoric times, it is evident that this area is not only the birthplace of civilization but also of eternal war. Without mountains or other natural barriers, every nation that grew strong militarily would dominate the others, until the day when it too would be enslaved. This was the natural order. But today, when humanity might be expected to enjoy the fruits of a well-ordered international system that would preclude such wars, many regions, such as the Middle East, are still burdened by an inheritance of colonial-era borders that divide nations, cut some off from natural resources while richly endowing others and do nothing more than keep tensions alive. Whereas previous American interventions had been aimed at weakening Iran (or the popular movement within it), the invasion of Iraq in 2003 resulted in the triumph of pro-Iran forces in Iraq. So the Americans and «the Persians» did indeed win. Iran now enjoys dominance in the region: It may have US forces on its borders with Iraq and Afghanistan but at this moment it is threatened by no foreign foe and continues to develop its nuclear program without hindrance – as long as Washington prevents an Israeli attack. And yet, in this moment of triumph, the stalwarts of Tehran’s theocratic regime sound like Saddam when they speak of the demonstrators who demand new presidential elections. Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei came down hard on the side of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and accused Britain of being Iran’s «most evil» enemy. Interior Minister Sadeq Mahsouli claimed that the CIA is funding the protests. Now presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi is being accused of being an agent of foreign powers. So here, like in Iraq, foreign powers and their agents are blamed for what happens, even though President Barack Obama seems to have done nothing more than express outrage at the regime’s violence toward its own people. But it is not only the foreign powers and their agents who are seen as enemies: The regime has arrested hundreds of professors, journalists and politicians whom it considers dissidents – including people who were close to the father of the Islamic revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini. The protests that have rocked Iran since the elections on June 12 may seem to have quieted down but it is clear that there is now a rift that runs from the very top of the regime down to the youths in the street who thirst for greater freedom. The regime diehards who appeared to have won on all fronts now face their greatest challenge – their own people. In fratricidal strife, the Persians now see «Persians» as enemies.