Monday 8 October 2007

Iran, Iraq, Israel

There's an interesting piece in the NYRB by Peter Galbraith (whose book I praised here) on the ways in which Iran has benefited from the Iraq war. Galbraith gives a detailed account of Iran's backing for the Iraqi Shiite militias, including the Badr Organization, who are widely believed to dominate government forces in the south of the country. The actions of the US-run Coalition Provisional Authority, appointing Badr leaders to key positions in the new army and police forces, seem to have made things worse.

Bremer's CPA further cemented Iranian influence when it appointed officials from the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) as governors and members of governorate councils throughout southern Iraq (for more on this, see Rory Stewart's account of his time working for the CPA, which I reviewed here). As Galbraith reminds us, 'SCIRI, recently renamed the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC), was founded at the Ayatollah Khomeini's direction in Tehran in 1982. The Badr Organization is the militia associated with SCIRI.' He continues:

In the January 2005 elections, SCIRI became the most important component of Iraq's ruling Shiite coalition. In exchange for not taking the prime minister's slot, SCIRI won the right to name key ministers, including the minister of the interior. From that ministry, SCIRI placed Badr militiamen throughout Iraq's national police.

Galbraith concludes:

In short, George W. Bush had from the first facilitated the very event he warned would be a disastrous consequence of a US withdrawal from Iraq: the takeover of a large part of the country by an Iranian-backed militia. And while the President contrasts the promise of democracy in Iraq with the tyranny in Iran, there is now substantially more personal freedom in Iran than in southern Iraq.

As I've mentioned before, the replacement of Ba'athist tyranny with an oppressive theocracy in southern Iraq is one of the most depressing consequences of the war, and simpy shrugging our shoulders and saying it's the democratic will of the people is a betrayal of those - particularly women, minority groups and secular forces - who will suffer as a result.

This is not an argument against the original decision to go to war, though I believe there were powerful strategic (rather than moral) arguments for not doing so. But it is a further indictment of the conduct of the war and the administration of its aftermath. The encouragement and appeasement of conservative religious parties by the CPA was either breathtakingly naive, or motivated (as I've argued before) by a communalist politics that smacks of colonial rule rather than modern democracy-building. This isn't, of course, to let the Iranian government off the hook for their malign interference in the political affairs of a neighbouring country.

Galbraith also provides an assessment of current relations between the US and Iran, which includes an insightful account of the nuclear issue. He argues that the Bush government's funding for certain Iranian opposition groups could backfire and reminds us that some of these groups are as unsavoury as the regime they oppose. He concludes that, right now, 'the US is in the worst possible position. It is identified with the most discredited part of the Iranian opposition and unwanted by the reformers who have the most appeal to Iranians.' However, I'm not sure that this merits his drastic conclusion: 'If Congress wants to help the Iranian opposition, it should cut off funding for Iranian democracy programs.' This seems to me like a counsel of despair. However, the question of how best to offer solidarity to liberal and reforming groups in Iran remains a difficult one for those elements of the western Left not given to culturally relativist apologias for Ahmadinejad's repressive regime.

Along similar lines, Anthony Mahoney offers a mostly fair and balanced account of the current state of relations between Iran and Israel in this week's Tablet (available free online due to the postal strike). I have only one small criticism of Mahoney. At one point he states: 'Recent conferences in Iran on the Holocaust have witnessed a conjoining of Middle Eastern political anti-Zionism and forms of European anti-Semitism.' This fails to acknowledge the virulent antisemitism inherent in political Islam (as evidenced in Ahmadinejad's Holocaust denial) by reducing it to a foreign importation, and thus risks disguising the racism of the Islamic regime as political principle.

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