Blaming the Foreign Bogeyman in Iran
Posted Thu, Jul 16, 2009

After the striking events of the past few weeks, a tense and uneasy peace and has now fallen over the streets of Tehran.   For the moment, the ruthless government crackdown imposed in response to the aftermath of the disputed Presidential election has largely succeeded in suppressing public protest of the outcome of the election.  To the surprise of no one, in justifying the often brutal repression of its own citizenry, the Iranian regime fell back on a standard stratagem, blaming the bogeyman of “outside agitators” and shadowy “foreign powers” as being responsible for the  election backlash in the first place.  For a change however, the scapegoating isn’t going over well.

This time, the tried and true panacea of blaming the West seems to be falling flat - relatively speaking - domestically, as well as abroad.  One reason is that Iran’s favourite foreign aggressor, the United States, has been judicious and clever in its public response to the situation in Iran.  Recognizing that a strident denunciation of the election and/or Iranian government is exactly what the regime needs and wants to better invoke the spectre of foreign enemies being to blame for the post election tumult, the Obama administration has resisted handing them this tool.  Instead, their early response to the election was studiously restrained, with stronger rhetoric later coming in response to the violence of the crackdown.  As the Iranian leadership is finding out, it is difficult to paint a sinister, external conspiracy when your supposed adversary is seen not only to be studiously avoiding interfering, but in recent times has also apparently been attempting to bridge the divide between you.  I’m guessing that Ahmadinejad and his ilk long for the good old days when they were being denounced as a pillar of the Axis of Evil.  Now, their propagandists are undoubtedly finding the “Great Satan” a much more slippery foe; even the very person of the current US President now undermines the longstanding propagandistic depiction of colonialist American leaders: Obama is non white, conciliatory, international and from a family with muslim roots.  There’s a reason that, shortly after January’s Inauguration, Ahmadinejad rushed to declare that there was no difference between Obama and his predecessor.

In fact, throughout the recent upheaval, the Iranian leadership has, remarkably, been forced to turn to the region’s second favourite scapegoat, as the supposed prime culprit for the election turmoil.  Iranian officials have loudly, and ludicrously, accused Britain of sinister behind the scenes manipulation and incitement of events.  This culminated in Iran’s Foreign Minister detailing how Britain had flown in planeloads of spies, and later expelling a group of British diplomats.  Interestingly, the minister, Mr. Mottaki, failed to explain how such a diabolical cabal of agitators were able to easily clear Iranian immigration in the first place, but I suppose one can’t have it all.  Foreign Ministry officials have also depicted BBC Persia (which has been transmitting images and comment to viewers in Iran) as part of an - wait for it - Israeli plot to break up the country.  This isn’t to say that the U.S. hasn’t also remained a target of propaganda - at Tehran’s central university (which like a number of Tehran’s other centers of higher learning remains locked down), graffiti praising Mr. Mousavi, the opposition candidate, has been scrubbed off to reveal a massive, officially sanctioned mural depicting the Statue of Liberty pelting cowering women and children with rocks. Subtle, no?

Still, such propaganda is failing to gain the usual traction in stirring up the Iranian public, and  the reason is clear:  It is painfully obvious that happened in Iran was not the work of any outside force.  The backlash against the election was organic, internally initiated and directed, and to suggest otherwise is an insult to those involved - which exactly the way it is being taken.  Further, the sheer number of people who got involved in the protests has undermined the government’s propaganda effort more effectively than any counter campaign could have.  Literally millions of people took part in the demonstrations, and they, their families and all who know them know that they didn’t do so at the behest of foreign meddlers.

Deprived of their usual crutch, Iran’s leaders are paying the price for the crackdown in the court of public opinion.  While overt dissent has been largely quelled through force (reports indicate that over 2000 people have been arrested and detained), the careful veneer that Iran likes to present to the world - a democratic nation of united people - has been left in tatters.  Similarly, all of this has been a tremendous blow to the image of Iran’s Supreme Leader, who’s facade of being  above politics was conclusively debunked when Ayatollah Khamenei was forced to wade into the fray, and preemptively declare the election results valid.  (As an aside, not to be glib, but one can’t help but to look a little askance at any nation which styles its top man the “Supreme Leader”, “Dear Leader” or any other such variation.  The phrase is so over the top that it puts one in the mind of the Austin Powers movies.  But I digress).

Given how tightly controlled the electoral system in Iran is, it is remarkable that all of this could have come to pass.  Though “democratic”, it is well known that only select, approved candidates are allowed to run in Iranian elections, with others being dissuaded or overtly prevented from taking part by the powers that be. One thing which makes the entire situation so interesting is that the leading opposition candidate, Mr. Mousavi, was such an approved candidate and is hardly a new or radical, wide eyed reformer: to the contrary, he is a former Iranian Prime Minister.  In fact, it is doubtful that Iran’s policies would have materially changed had he become President.  That the election would prompt the crackdown it has, that he has refused to back down and accept the official results of the election, and carefully continues to agitate exposes a behind the scenes schism amongst the power brokers in Iran.  The fact that Mr. Mousavi has not yet been arrested is also telling, though there are indications that the groundwork for doing so is perhaps being laid.

So what does all of this mean, and what will happen next?  In the short term: nothing.  The protests and uprising have been suppressed, and as often proves to be the case, the international community is divided and paralyzed. While Western nations have been, to varying degrees, critical, Russia was quick to dismiss the matter as a private “internal affair”, and China has gone so far as to endorse the election results.  This virtually ensures that there can be no substantive involvement by the United Nations, even if there was the will by Western nations to push for such (which there is not).  Still, the strategy employed by the West is the correct one, for the time being. Unless such nations are prepared to become directly involved, it does no good to be loudly decrying the regime.  Empty bluster and pointed invective might be cathartic, but coming from foreign nations, and specifically the “Great Satan”, it would do nothing other than offer a much needed diversion to the Iranian regime.  The present course doesn’t allow the Iranian government the easy way out, and combined with the fact that they are under an intense level of international scrutiny, forces them to step very carefully around the situation.

Internal cracks have formed, a political schism has been revealed, and the legitimacy of the regime has been left in tatters.  Though quelled for the moment, the vast majority of protesters are still at large, and the Iranian government is all too aware that a misstep on their part could trigger a further popular backlash.

Oh, for the days when they could just blame the foreign bogeyman.

Darren Thorne
Darren Thorne, B.A., LL.B., LL.M. Educated at the London School of Economics and Political Science (Master of Laws Degree) and Toronto's Osgoode Hall Law School (Bachelor of Laws), Darren Thorne is an international lawyer specializing in international law, development and human rights. Based in Europe in recent years, Mr. Thorne has an extensive history of onsite international development work and within the last two years has been involved in project work in Ethiopia, Tanzania, South Africa, Mongolia and Italy, among other places.

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