Sistani & Iran

Posted by Cutler on May 02, 2006
Iran, Iraq

Bush administration policy on Iran is a pretty complicated affair. I’m not yet prepared to post a full commentary on the flurry of rumors last week about a potential US nuke strike against Iran. Suffice it to say, for now, that I have my doubts that this is the neocon game plan. My reading is that neocons are not actually all that upset about the country of Iran having nukes–at least not as upset as say, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Pakistan. Neocons are, however, upset about the incumbent clerical regime in Iran having nukes.

The neocons want regime change in Iran.  They have in mind a popular rebellion, not a military strike.  The emphasis on regime change is actually all over Hersh’s New Yorker piece, but it gets second billing to the nuke attack. The only explicit connection Hersh makes between a military strike and regime change is one quote that suggests a nuke attack might lead to regime change–something like a “Falklands” scenario where military defeat leads to regime change. I have my doubts…

I find much more compelling the idea that neocons are not the ones who want to keep the Iranian nuke issue front and center; the key sources for Hersh’s articles were folks who favored coming to terms with the incumbent regime. They call it crazy and press Bush to go for a diplomatic solution.

Neocons don’t want any “accord” with the Iranian regime, but that is not the same as favoring a military attack. They favor a populist rebellion against a regime they think is quite unpopular. Moreover, my reading of neocon war strategies suggests that they think that the Iraqi clerical establishment–especially the good offices of Grand Ayatollah Sistani–might help undermine the Iranian clerical establishment.

This notion–that the US can exploit divisions between Najaf (Sistani’s base in Iraq) and Qom (the center of the Iranian clerical establishment)–may seem like the most far-fetched notion of all. (One comment by Kieran suggested that the Tooth Fairy and Easter Bunny would be similarly inclined to help bring down the Iranian regime).

I don’t really have a dog in this race. And I have no interest in defending neocons. But I also don’t like to underestimate my opponents. And I note, with great interest, that when Professor Juan Cole–far more of an expert on such matters than I–listed his Top Ten Myths about Iraq in 2005, number five was as follows:

5. Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, born in Iran in 1930, is close to the Iranian regime in Tehran Sistani, the spiritual leader of Iraq’s majority Shiite community, is an almost lifetime expatriate. He came to Iraq late in 1951, and is far more Iraqi than Arnold Schwarzenegger is Californian. Sistani was a disciple of Grand Ayatollah Burujirdi in Iran, who argued against clerical involvement in day to day politics. Sistani rejects Khomeinism, and would be in jail if he were living in Iran, as a result. He has been implicitly critical of Iran’s poor human rights record, and has himself spoken eloquently in favor of democracy and pluralism. Ma’d Fayyad reported in Al-Sharq al-Awsat in August of 2004 that when Sistani had heart problems, an Iranian representative in Najaf visited him. He offered Sistani the best health care Tehran hospitals could provide, and asked if he could do anything for the grand ayatollah. Sistani is said to have responded that what Iran could do for Iraq was to avoid intervening in its internal affairs. And then Sistani flew off to London for his operation, an obvious slap in the face to Iran’s Supreme Jurisprudent Ali Khamenei.

I haven’t asked Professor Cole what he thinks about Neocon attempts to exploit this fissure between Sistani and the Iranian regime, but I’d sure be interested to know…

12 Comments to Sistani & Iran

  • You should DEFINITELY try to get Cole’s comment on your Right Arabist vs Right Zionist thesis, I too would be very interested to know. I thought your Beyond Incompetence article was the most original and thought-proking article I’ve read in quite a while. I commented on Cole’s blog that he should have given more attention to your article.

  • What should be remembered is that Sistani, in supporting democracy and pluralism, is not only in agreement with an estimated 80-90% of Iranians, but also in agreement with a probably sizable majority of Iranian clerics. The Iranian system is being held hostage by a very small minority who receive important sustenance (perhaps the most important sustenance) from US beligerance, which includes neo-con rhetoric.

    Where Sistani might be at odds with Iran is in the the Iranian belief (although how commonly held is hard to guage) that pluralist democracy can be achieved without departing from the principles of the revolution. The constitution (for all its woeful vagueness) is as explicitly democratic as it is Islamist. Khatami’s rhetoric (if not his actions) gained him an extraordinary electoral mandate for democratic reform. Simply put , this can can be summarised as an acceptance that the voice of God is best conveyed through the voice of the People, not the voice of clerical leadership. Thus democracy and Islamism could be reconciled. Of course this would involve the abdication of power by the ‘hardline’ clerics, and, if the the Iranian people so wished, could lead to the destruction of the principles of the revolution (or at least the Islamist principles). From an objective point of view, however, the democratic principles of the revolution have never been honoured, so little is risked.

    Turning to the split between right-Zionist and right-Arabist (I’m not entirely comfortable with the term ‘Arabist’ in this context, but it does convey the point). Another way of looking at this is that it reflects the common split between neo-realists who are ‘securtiy-maximizers’ (right-Arabist) and those who are ‘power-maximisers’ (right-Zionist). Of course neo-realism is supposed to be a descriptive theory, not a normative one, but such a pretence is little more than laughable.

    Realism and all of its descendents (including not only neo-realism but also neo-liberalism) are probaly best understood as a psychological phenomenon. The frequent denial of a normative/prescriptive agenda by Realists seems almost schizophrenic when juxtaposed with their with their wholehearted adoption of Herodotus and Machiavelli as antecedents. Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’ could not have been more explicitly prescriptive, and Herodotus is barely less so. Any argument that they were simply providing normative solutions based on a realistic assessment of the world of politics as it really is is circular. This is the heart of the problem – when policy is based on Realist dogma it creates the ‘reality’ that it supposedly describes – at least on the surface it does.

    Any form of Realism is reductionist – it doesn’t takle a great deal of scholarship or intellect to work that out – but psychologically its reductions facilitate the amoral excercise of power (i.e. rationalise megalomaniac impulses), and provide the illusion of certainty that one’s actions are beneficial to one’s interests. It allows leaders to treat policy actions as moves in a strategic game, increasing their sensations of control and power.

    The most obvious example of Realist reduction is Israeli policy. [I should note here that I agree with Chomsky that Israel is subservient to US policy. Uri Avnery points out, with reference to the Israel lobby, that the dog and the tail both wag each other, but in the final analysis the tail is dependent on the dog, not vice-versa. Any examination of the Israel lobby should take into account, without getting too conspiracy-minded, that its power has been allowed to grow. Having said that, the method by which Israel supports US imperialism is by adopting a Realist stance with reference to its own security, so my arguments below are still valid.] Any reasonable assessment of Israel’s future would admit that it is unsustainable without, at least, securing Arab acquiescence to its existence. US hegemony cannot last forever, nor can Imperially promoted Arab divisions be forever exploitable. Yet Israel continues to pur

    sue policies based on a Realist understanding of geopolitics and demography, policies which every single day provide further motive for Arabs to seek the termination of Israel as a state. They are effectively destroying their own country’s future in order to excercise power amorally and, not coincidently, to give expression to the hatred and desire to inflict violence that lives in all people.

  • Professsor:

    Have just critiqued Ali Al-Sistani’s abilities on the pitch, paid work by the way, for Premier League Magazine.

    We are like English football fans at Moon. Somewhat rowdy.

  • Kieran seems to me to be trying to inrtoduce a sort of sophomoric sense of superiority in his readers. Normativity versus realism is a red herring here. The issue is, are judeocentric fantasies about dismantling and reconstructing the entire Near East supposed to be taken seriously, or are they just froth (like Chalabi’s flowers and candies for the ‘liberators’)? Is the neocon capacity for far-fetched scenarios evidence of self-delusion, or conscious dishonesty? I suspect the latter – my view is that the neocon belief is that once the US is dragged into the maelstrom it will surrender all strategic control to Israel.

  • I don’t understand how anyone can seriously believe that US policy is subservient to Zionist interests. Where Walt and Mearsheimer go wrong is in defining US national interest as being the security and wellbeing of the people. In contrast, for nearly 60 years US leaders, strategists and (most importantly) institutions have worked on the premise that there is no security without economic and military material superiority. It is an almost understandable stance to have developed in light of the experiences of the two World Wars, but one that was rendered specious by the development of a nuclear deterrent (the strategy’s retention and growth can probably be put down to the fact that it allowed for imperialist policies that greatly enhanced the wealth and power of those in the US that were already wealthy and powerful).

    Ironically, the very imperialist policies that resulted – with their emphasis on enriching the rich with the resources of other countries – have slowly gutted the US economy. It has become, especially in recent years, somewhat parasitic. US vulnerability has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. While it is as safe as it ever was from military attack, it now has to retain strict hegemony in order not to collapse economically. Its options for doing so don’t seem bright (although it does have the advantage that a US collapse is potentially disastrous for the entire globe). The obvious option is to try to convert its military dominance into economic gain.

    That is where things get complicated, because for both practical and political reasons the US cannot simply annex resources through military conquest. However, it can siphon resources and it can deny them to its rivals. That’s why they seek a wider destabilisation of the Middle East – an opportunity to loot oil in the chaos and the ability to neutralise oil assets, if only temporarily, that might be used by others – which in zero-sum terms, and dollar terms, makes the oil that you do control worth much more (and incidentally, if you happen to be in the oil industry, makes you much richer personally).

    Sorry for being ‘sophomoric’ again, I just don’t think my ideas would make any sense without lots of expository comment.

  • well, put it like that, we have to choose which of two scenarios of rampant and eventually sefl destructive megalomania is more plausible, the US-centric or the Israel-centric.

  • It seems to me that your idea of what Walt and Mearsheimer represent, Kieran, is based on someone’s dogmatic account of what “realists” are supposed to be, but this is not what Walt and Mearsheimer’s paper is about : it is about lobbies. The abstractions of rational choice theory may provide convenient axes for lectures in political philosophy, but they are not relevant to reality.

  • The idea that W&M are “realists”, i.e. desiccated egoistic machiavellian calculating machines, and this explains their support for the loathsome Saudis, whereas, if they had hearts and souls, they would support plucky little Israel, is a product of neocon rhetoric – Caroline Glick does it rather well, here, but it’s a completely meretricious argument, since neither Caroline nor anyone else seriously believes that the USA is guided by altruism, or could be, or should be.

  • I was expecting retaliation from Kieran to the last three comments – I was all ready to say that the trouble with blogs run by the professoriat is that there is always some up-and-coming would-be academic trying to kick real issues into the long grass of abstract “isms” – which is in any case the leitmotif of all ideological propaganda – what you do to discredit someone is, first of all categorise them as the follower of an “ism”, then attempt to show that, within the terms of that “ism” itself, they are being inconsistent – this is much more highbrow than ad hominem attacks on their personal hygeine or morality.

    This is the only blog I have to change my screen resolution in order to be able to read – can it not please be rearranged to suit 800×600 pixels?

  • I wasn’t saying anything about Walt and Mearsheimer’s theoretical stance, or being dogmatic, suggesting that they are dogmatic, or even thinking of them partcularly as Realists. I basically agree with most of what they wrote. I just think, as I said, that they went wrong in judging US policy in terms of a sensible rational idea of the US national interest rather than looking at US policy historically to find out how the authors of US policy define national interest. Beyond that, I think there is a still further leap that must be made because there is a historically unprecedented degree of desparation informing current US policy.

    Nice to know, Rowan, that you anticipate my ‘retaliation’ so eagerly. Sorry it took so long. Sorry I used the phrase ‘US policy’ so repetitiously in this post.

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