IN CRUDE and brutal societies, the Party Line is publicly proclaimed, and it must be obeyed, or else. What you believe is your own business, of lesser concern. In societies where the state has lost the capacity to control by force, the Party Line is not proclaimed. Rather, it is presupposed, and then vigorous debate is encouraged within the limits imposed by unstated doctrinal orthodoxy.
The crude system leads to natural disbelief. The sophisticated variant gives the impression of openness and freedom, and serves to instill the Party Line as beyond question, even beyond thought, like the air we breathe. In the ever more precarious standoff between Washington and Teheran, one Party Line confronts another. Among the well-known immediate victims are the Iranian-American detainees Parnaz Azima, Haleh Esfandiari, Ali Shakeri and Kian Tajbakhsh. But the whole world is held hostage to the US-Iran conflict, where, after all, the stakes are nuclear.
Unsurprisingly, President Bush’s announcement of a “surge” in Iraq — in reaction to the call of most Americans for steps toward withdrawal, and the even stronger demands of the (irrelevant) Iraqis — was accompanied by ominous leaks about Iranian-based fighters and Iranian-made IEDS in Iraq aimed at disrupting Washington’s mission to gain victory, which is (by definition) noble.
Then followed the predictable debate: The hawks say we have to take violent measures against such outside interference in Iraq. The doves counter that we must make sure the evidence is compelling. The entire debate can proceed without absurdity only on the tacit assumption that we own the world. Therefore interference is limited to those who impede our objectives in a country that we invaded and occupy.
What are the plans of the increasingly desperate clique that narrowly holds political power in the United States? Reports of threatening, off-the-record statements by staffers for Vice-President Cheney have heightened fears of an expanded war. “You do not want to give additional argument to new crazies who say, ‘Let’s go and bomb Iran,”‘ Mohamed ElBaradei, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, told the BBC last month.
“I wake up every morning and see 100 Iraqis, innocent civilians, are dying.”
US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, as against the “new crazies,” is supposedly pursuing the diplomatic track with Teheran. But the Party Line holds, unchanged. In April, Rice spoke about what she would say if she encountered her Iranian counterpart Manouchehr Mottaki at the international conference on Iraq at Sharm el Sheikh. “What do we need to do? It’s quite obvious,” Rice said. “Stop the flow of arms to foreign fighters; stop the flow of foreign fighters across the borders.” She is referring, of course, to Iranian fighters and arms. US fighters and arms are not “foreign” in Iraq. Or anywhere. The tacit premise underlying her comment, and virtually all public discussion about Iraq (and beyond) is that we own the world.
Do we not have the right to invade and destroy a foreign country? Of course we do. That’s a given. The only question is: Will the surge work? Or some other tactic? Perhaps this catastrophe is costing us too much. And those are the limits of the debates among the presidential candidates, the Congress and the media, with rare exceptions. That’s part of the reason the debates are so inconclusive. The basic issues are not discussable.
Doubtless Teheran merits harsh condemnation, certainly for severe domestic repression and the inflammatory rhetoric of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (who has little to do with foreign affairs). It is, however, useful to ask how Washington would act if Iran had invaded and occupied Canada and Mexico, overthrown the governments there, slaughtered scores of thousands of people, deployed major naval forces in the Caribbean and issued credible threats to destroy the United States if it did not immediately terminate its nuclear energy programs (and weapons). Would we watch quietly? After the United States invaded Iraq, “Had the Iranians not tried to build nuclear weapons, they would be crazy,” said Israeli military historian Martin van Creveld.
Surely no sane person wants Iran (or anyone) to develop nuclear weapons. A reasonable solution to the crisis would permit Iran to develop nuclear energy, in accord with its rights under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, but not nuclear weapons. Is that outcome feasible? It would be, under one condition: that the United States and Iran were functioning democratic societies, in which public opinion has a significant impact on public policy, overcoming the huge gulf that now exists on many critical issues, including this one.
That reasonable solution has overwhelming support among Iranians and Americans, who agree quite generally on nuclear issues, according to recent polls by the Program on International Policy Attitudes, at the University of Maryland. The Iranian-American consensus extends to complete elimination of nuclear weapons everywhere (82 per cent of Americans), and if that cannot be achieved, a “nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East that would include Islamic countries and Israel (71 per cent of Americans).” To 75 per cent of Americans, it is better to build relations with Iran rather than use threats of force.
These facts suggest a possible way to prevent the current crisis from exploding, perhaps even to World War III, as predicted by British military historian Correlli Barnett. That awesome threat might be averted by pursuing a familiar proposal: democracy promotion — at home, where it is badly needed. Although we cannot carry out the project directly in Iran, we can act to improve the prospects for the courageous reformers and oppositionists who are seeking to achieve just that. They include people like Saeed Hajjarian, Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi and Akbar Ganji, and those who as usual remain nameless, among them labour activists.
We can improve the prospects for democracy promotion in Iran by sharply reversing state policy here so that it reflects popular opinion. That would entail withdrawing the threats that are a gift to the Iranian hardliners and are bitterly condemned for that reason by Iranians truly concerned with democracy promotion. We can act to open some space for those who are seeking to overthrow the reactionary and repressive theocracy from within, instead of undermining their efforts by threats and aggressive militarism.
Democracy promotion, while no panacea, would be a useful step towards helping the United States become a “responsible stakeholder” in the international order (to adopt the term used for adversaries), instead of being an object of fear and dislike throughout much of the world. Apart from being a value in itself, a functioning democracy at home holds promise for a simple recognition that we don’t own the world, we share it.
Noam Chomsky is a professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the author, most recently, of Hegemony or Survival Americas Quest for Global Dominance.
FAIR USE NOTICE: This blog may contain copyrighted material. Such material is made available for educational purposes, to advance understanding of human rights, democracy, scientific, moral, ethical, and social justice issues, etc. This constitutes a ‘fair use’ of any such copyrighted material as provided for in Title 17 U.S.C. section 107 of the US Copyright Law. This material is distributed without profit.