26 July 2009

Choosing Sides in Iran

President Ahmadinejad was humiliated this past week when the Supreme Leader told him to retract his choice of a deputy, allegedly because the man had once overexuberantly said that Iranians are friends with everybody -- even Israelis. There's also word that he might face a kind of no-confidence vote in the legislature, though I assume that it would only be an embarrassment and not a defeat to his government as such a vote would be in Great Britain or any country with a parliamentary form of government.

In any event, the persistence of high-profile protest in the wake of the government's crackdown on street demonstrations makes clear that Iran is a society divided in ways that can't be papered over either by the government's own propaganda or by American efforts to portray it as a "totalitarian" state. This leaves people picking sides, particularly on the international "left." I've recently read two strongly contrasting viewpoints from leftist writers.

Earlier this month in The Nation, Alexander Cockburn scoffed at liberals who've adopted Mir Hossein Mousavi as one of their own. He reminded readers that Mousavi participated in crackdowns against genuine leftists during the Khomeini years. He also dismisses the opposition leader as a stooge of the now leading dissident, former President Rafsanjani, of whom all Cockburn needs to say is that he's a "billionaire." "Compared with this vicious duo, Ahmadinejad is relatively wholesome and, I'd reckon on the analyses and numbers I've read so far...the actual winner of the election," Cockburn writes. He claims that a kind of fix was in before the voting, with people prepared to call it a fraud before votes were even cast. I don't doubt this, but does this mean, as we might infer from Cockburn, that the global left should accept Ahmadinejad?

Cockburn may be one of the leftists supporters of Ahamdinejad that Slavoj Zizek has in mind in his article in the new London Review of Books. A leftist himself, Zizek suspects that many comrades have embraced the president out of a kind of knee-jerk anti-imperialism. They boost his reputation as a populist and downplay his essays in Holocaust-denial. His own opinion of Ahmadinejad is less benign:

Ahmadinejad is not the hero of the Islamist poor, but a corrupt Islamofascist populist, a kind of Iranian [Silvio] Berlusconi whose mixture of clownish posturing and ruthless power politics is causing unease even among the ayatollahs. His demagogic distribution of crumbs to the poor shouldn't deceive us: he has the backing not only of the organs of police repression and a very Westernised PR apparatus. He is also supported by a powerful new class of Iranians who have become rich thanks to the regime's corruption -- the Revolutionary Guard is not a working-class militia, but a mega-corporation, the most powerful centre of wealth in the country.

The main point of Zizek's article is to equate Ahmadinejad with Italy's Berlusconi and Russia's Putin as leaders who are against democracy. It's an interesting grouping, since many leftists often place Ahmadinejad on the same side as the South American leaders like Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales, of whom Zizek has no comment this time around. As for Mousavi, Zizek writes that he "stands for the resuscitation of the popular dream that sustained the Khomeini revolution."

I can't help but guess that Zizek sympathizes with Mousavi not so much because of the man's merits but because he's inspired mobs to take the streets. Zizek's sympathies are always with mobs, it seems. To him, they're democracy in its purest form, and they represent the perpetual promise that people can form themselves into The People, that united and undifferentiated (one might even say totalitarian, if only to irk Zizek) entity whose existence he deems necessary for democracy to actually function the way it's meant to. Zizek criticizes liberal democracy because it takes factionalism and personal interests for granted; in his view, those concessions belie democracy. A mob might make democracy real by his standards if it only had staying power, but history disappoints the philosopher, and I suspect the Iranian mobs and their idol will disappoint him too.

Intellectuals and activists claim the privilege of picking sides in all the world's conflicts, of identifying good guys and bad guys and otherwise acting as if their preferences mean something to the people in the actual countries. Zizek, for one, warns leftists against seeing the Iranian situation exclusively in imperialism-vs-Islamism terms, but his own analysis merely replaces one overriding global template with another. He imagines Ahmadinejad as part of some malign global trend that only The People can stop, and you can't blame him for doing so. As a professor, it's probably part of his job to imagine malign global trends. But it's entirely possible that the troubles in Iran have everything to do with Iran and little or nothing to do with any kind of global zeitgeist. It's even more important for our elected leaders to bear that in mind. It's okay for academics and journalists to pass judgments on everything that happens, but responsible diplomats ought to be more careful, and they should not take sides in any country's domestic politics. So my advice to the Obama administration, for example, is to ignore everything I've written until this last paragraph.

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