“Go back to your country”

Today, President #Trump said on the Twitter that “‘Progressive’ Democrat Congresswomen who originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe, the worst, most corrupt and inept anywhere in the world (if they even have a functioning government at all), now loudly and viciously telling the people of the United States, the greatest and most powerful Nation on earth, how our government is to be run. Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came…”

The Congresswomen in question are Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (#AOC), #RashidaTlaib, #AyannaPressley, and #IlhanOmar, all of whom are not white. Herein lies the problem that all non-whites face when they criticize US foreign policy–that if we don’t like a policy then we are un-American and we should “go back to our country”–an outrageous comment I have had personally leveled at me time and again. There are two assumptions here that warrant unpacking:

1. That to be a full American one has to acquiesce to the US government. This is a dangerous and very un-American assumption. In fact, the whole purpose of the First Amendment is to protect Americans’ right to criticize their government without fear of persecution;

2. White Americans hardly have to deal with such vitriol because the assumption is that they are indigenous, but when a non-white American is critical of the government then they are told that they should “go back to their country.” In other words, a white American would never be told to go back to anywhere because somehow they are native, which, of course, they are not;

In sum, Trump’s attack on these Congresswomen underscores a racial understanding of Americanness and what it means to be a full American–white and/or blind obedience to government.

I am neither white (Iranians are not white despite census classifications) nor born in the US (and I won’t even mention my citizenship status because that’s irrelevant), but I will continue to criticize the government–whether a Democrat or Republican is in office–because it is very important to hold the most powerful country on Earth to a high standard because one wrong policy can lead to the destruction of an entire region a la the #Iraq War.

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31 Years On: IranAir 655

On this day 31 years ago, the USS Vincennes shot down IranAir Flight 655. 290 civilians died.

That the downing of the passenger plane happened during the final stages of the Iran-Iraq War serves as a reminder of the US role in that war. With President Reagan at the helm, the United States entered into a tactical alliance with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The now infamous photo of Donald Rumsfeld meeting with Saddam in 1983 speaks to this pact (image below).

The Reagan administration supplied Saddam’s regime with billions that were used to buy some of the most advanced weapons available in the Western world. The US also provided satellite information so Iraq knew where to strike Iranian troop movements. When that satellite information was used to enable Iraqi chemical attacks on Iranian soldiers, the US not only did not protest, but provided diplomatic cover at the UN against Iranian objections. No UN resolution was passed condemning Iraq’s use of chemical weapons against Iranians, and Iran never retaliated with its own chemical weapons stockpile.

Late in the war when Iran began targeting the oil tankers of Iraqi war financiers, namely Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, the US intervened and sank what little Iran had in terms of a navy at the time.

The downing of IranAir Flight 655 must be considered in this context. While the US claimed it was an accident, the Iranians were convinced that it was a deliberate attack designed to weaken the country’s morale thereby facilitating an end to hostilities. Iran was open to ending the war after eight bitter years, but it insisted that any resolution that formally concluded the conflict recognize Iraq as the aggressor that initiated the war. With the downing of IranAir Flight 655, Iran shortly after accepted UN Resolution 598, which made no mention of who started the war.

Two years later, the frankenstein that the US helped build in Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, marking a rupture in the decade-long US-Saddam alliance. The subsequent Persian Gulf War (1990-91), 12 years of sanctions, 2003 US-led invasion (with the same Rumsfeld now serving as Defense Secretary), al Qaeda in Iraq/ISIS can all be traced back, in part, to these fateful years of the US support of Saddam Hussein.

Remember IranAir Flight 655. Remember, there’s always a deeper history to an event that helps unpack and understand that occurrence. Remember, there are always consequences and ripple effects–intended or otherwise.

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The Humanizing Legacy of Iran’s Green Uprising

My piece at Informed Comment: June 12, 2019 marks the tenth anniversary of what sparked the Green Uprising in Iran. While many have noted that it was a “failed revolution” because it was unsuccessful in abrogating the controversial election results or toppling the state that ratified them, it enjoyed many subtle victories, one of which matters today in terms of US-Iran tensions: The uprising humanized Iranians.

On June 12, 2009, millions of Iranians went to the polls to participate in the country’s tenth presidential election. While there were four candidates, the real race was between the incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and the reformist, Mir Hossein Mousavi.

For the first time in contemporary Iran, a candidate’s wife was also actively involved in the campaign. Zahra Rahnavard did not merely stand beside her husband during speeches, but gave her own fiery orations, giving voice to issues like human rights and gender equality that resonated with Iranians in general and women in particular. As such, women were an integral part of both the pre-election campaigning as well as the post-election uprising.

The night of the vote, the state proclaimed its favored candidate, Ahmadinejad, the winner. With widespread allegations of fraud, Iranians refused to accept the result leading to a tumultuous next day. It was, however, the second day after the election results that the movement really began to take shape with mass participation and increasing discipline—with even marches conducted in total silence. By Monday, June 15, a massive crowd of around three million gathered in the capital.

The following Friday, the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, gave a rare sermon as the gravity of the occasion summoned him. He affirmed the Guardian Council’s ratification of the results, blamed the protests on outside powers, concluded that the uprising’s continuity threatened national security, and ruled that a full-scale crackdown would be in force the following day.

An ominous sign, foreign journalists were ordered out of the country so that nobody would be able to cover what was ahead. The Digital Age, however, had arrived, and Iranians wielded their camera-equipped-phones to capture events as they unfolded on the streets of Iran; they televised their own pixelated revolution.

It was the next day after what activists termed Khamenei’s “Sermon of Blood” that the movement claimed a poster boy—except that it was not a boy but a 26-year-old woman. Neda Agha Soltan’s dramatic death was filmed and uploaded onto YouTube, and the footage of her death was picked up by international media and broadcast to the world—with one writer calling her murder “probably the most widely witnessed death in human history.”

Her killing also served as a testament to the state’s repression, and the movement’s tactics evolved. Instead of protesting everyday like before, protesters emerged only on political holidays when the state encouraged people to come out and show their support for the government that instituted those very days. One such day was the anniversary of the seizure of the US embassy—what one American writer likened to Iran’s equivalent of the Boston Tea Party (but with hostages) since it was through the embassy that the US and Britain overthrew Iran’s democratically elected government in 1953. Green Movement activists appropriated these state-sanctioned holidays in order to castigate that very state, and the uprising endured sporadically in such a manner until February 11, 2010.

Many legacies of the Green Uprising abound. First, the political taboo of publicly criticizing Khamenei was shattered. Second, activists upended and reprogrammed all of the state’s symbols of legitimation against that very polity. For instance, protesters came out on the anniversary of the American embassy seizure not to condemn the US—as was the norm for the preceding three decades—but Russia, which was one of the first countries to congratulate Ahmadinejad on his election “win.”

The third legacy is relevant to Iran-US tensions today. The manner in which Iranian activists filmed and broadcast their uprising via social media humanized Iranians. Before 2009, Americans largely saw Iran through the prism of its government, terrorism, and angry, zealous, bearded hostage-takers—not the heterogenous and dynamic society that at the time was home to over 70 million people. Through impromptu citizen journalism, Green Movement activists shattered that narrow lens and gave the world a panoramic view onto their country. This wider scope made war with a seemingly Iranian monolith all the more difficult to justify, leading one commentator at the time to recognize: “Imagine the revulsion if such air strikes, as they regularly do in Afghanistan, led to the unintended deaths of dozens or more of the very Iranians who are being cheered in the streets today.”

10 years on, the humanizing legacy of the Green Uprising matters today as the Trump administration is sanctioning Iran with the stated goal of affecting “regime change” under the premise that Iranians deserve better.

The most problematic aspect of this savior complex, however, is that it is harming the very Iranians the administration is purported to be helping. Sanctions are expected to cause inflation to potentially reach has high as 40 percent this year. Iranians are already suffering the consequences as their life savings have evaporated overnight. Spiraling inflation has caused a shortage of life-saving medicine and has affected daily patterns of consumption, such as costing workers a third of their monthly salary to buy two pounds of meat for their families. Not only are they consuming less meat, but Iranians are hosting their friends and families less frequently as decreasing numbers of people can afford to do so, which is fostering a sense of isolation for many, especially the elderly. To be sure, the sanctions are negatively affecting the very fabric of Iranian society.

The sanctions are also having a detrimental effect on Iranian culture, as sanctions-induced inflation is harming Iran’s famed film industry by cutting budgets and funding sources thereby facilitating a sharp drop in production.  Even newspapers are suffering at a time when Iranian journalists already face a repressive environment, but now have to contend with ink and paper shortages.

The Green Uprising failed to undo the election results, but it succeeded in many other ways. The one success that stands out in the context of the Trump administration starving an economy that today sustains over 83 million people is that it showed the world that Iran is a country of people with hopes and aspirations like many others.

Today, the humanizing legacy of the Green Movement demands an alternative method of conflict resolution than war and sanctions.


Pouya Alimagham is a historian of the modern Middle East at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and author of the forthcoming Contesting the Iranian Revolution: The Green Uprisings (Cambridge University Press). Follow him on Twitter @iPouya

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America’s Standard of “Normal Nation” in the Middle East

My latest piece – Lobelob: On June 2, 2019, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated that the United States would be willing to engage with Iran as long as “the Iranians…behave like a normal nation.”

Aside from the condescension of talking to Iranians as if they are children who need to “behave,” Pompeo’s remark begs the question as to what it means to act like a “normal nation.” A brief look at US-Iran relations before the Iranian Revolution and a short survey of America’s long-time allies in the Middle East today help shed light on how America’s foreign policy establishment defines “normal” behavior.

Iran under the Shah

Before the revolution in 1979, Iran was ruled by Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi—an autocrat installed by the United States and UK after they orchestrated the overthrow of Iran’s democratically elected government in 1953. Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq had defied imperial Britain by nationalizing the country’s oil resources for the benefit of the underdeveloped nation. A trained lawyer, he even successfully defended his case at the World Court—a legal decision that the British rejected.

After the coup, the United States helped the shah establish the notorious internal intelligence agency, SAVAK. The CIA trained SAVAK personnel in the most brutal forms of modern, scientific torture to ensure the longevity of the shah’s rule against a population that increasingly saw him as an American puppet. As a result, according to Amnesty International, the shah’s regime became one of the world’s worst violators of human rights. The Iranian opposition, which had long reeled under SAVAK’s heavy boot, predictably blamed the United States for the shah’s repression.

After Britain announced the withdrawal of its naval forces east of the Suez, then-President Nixon went to Iran in 1972 to meet with the shah to ensure that America’s ally in the Persian Gulf would fill the void. President Nixon offered to sell the shah the most sophisticated American military hardware short of nuclear weapons to become the policeman of the Persian Gulf. The shah eagerly obliged by building the most powerful military in the region. By 1976, the United States was selling more weapons to Iran than any other country in the world. In turn, the Iranian opposition criticized the shah’s multi-billion-dollar arms purchases as a waste of the country’s wealth.

The shah also had an interventionist record that aligned with American strategy during the Cold War. Bogged down in Vietnam, the United States looked to outsource the fight against Communism to right-wing regimes like the shah’s. In the early 1970s, Iran dispatched soldiers across the Persian Gulf to help put down Marxist insurrections in places like Dhofar, Oman—interventions that were supported at the time not only by the Americans, but the Saudis as well.

In sum, a “normal” Iran before 1979 was an autocracy that ruthlessly repressed dissent, bought billions in American weapons, protected U.S. interests in the Persian Gulf by intervening in other countries, and even had a Western-backed nuclear program.

Other “Normal Nations” in the Region

Cold War strategic considerations perhaps prompted the United States to consider such “behavior” as “normal.” Yet, a survey of America’s allies in the post-Cold War Middle East illustrates how the precedent of the shah is very much consistent with what the United States considers to be “normal” today.

Saudi Arabia is an apt starting point given that U.S.-Saudi relations go back as far as Roosevelt’s presidency. Today, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates—with the backing of the Trump administration—are spearheading the bombing of the poorest country in the Middle East, Yemen, contributing to what the UN considers the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. The Saudis and Emiratis are also the leading force in the blockade of America’s other ally in the Persian Gulf, Qatar. They are supporting some of the most extreme jihadis in Syria—though this support has lessened after the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen diverted resources and attention. Mohammad bin Salman, the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, is also credited with ordering the assassination of the U.S.-based Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, when he visited a Saudi consulate in Turkey.

Long before the upstart crown prince, Saudi Arabia had been deploying its oil wealth to spread its puritanical, hard-line interpretation of Islam across the Muslim world. Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State were born, in part, from this ubiquitous Saudi ideological conditioning.

Moreover, although President Trump alleges that the Iran nuclear agreement was not stringent enough, his administration quietly signed agreements to sell nuclear technology to the Saudis. What’s more, two American allies in the region, Pakistan and Israel, the former of which borders Iran, possess nuclear arsenals.

In terms of other “normal nations,” Israel’s military occupation of Palestinian territories has endured for more than half a century with no signs of abating. Instead, the Israeli government frequently announces plans to build more settlements in the West Bank.

America sends billions of dollars in annual military aid to Israel and Egypt. The latter has jailed thousands of dissidents since the overthrow of its democratically elected government in 2013. The home to one of the most iconic uprisings in the Arab Spring has become its seeming deathbed. The current Egyptian government is exponentially more authoritarian than the one preceding 2011. According to Human Rights Watch:

Since President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi secured a second term in a largely unfree and unfair presidential election in March, his security forces have escalated a campaign of intimidation, violence, and arrests against political opponents, civil society activists, and many others who have simply voiced mild criticism of the government. The Egyptian government and state media have framed this repression under the guise of combating terrorism, and al-Sisi has increasingly invoked terrorism and the country’s state of emergency law to silence peaceful activists.

The coup at home was not enough. Egypt, along with the Emiratis and the Saudis, are backing the renegade general, Khalifa Haftar, whom Trump has endorsed, as he attempts to topple the UN-recognized government in neighboring Libya.

Another “normal nation,” Bahrain—with the aid of Saudi Arabia and the UAE—repressed the most peaceful Arab Spring uprising of all. American support for the government, however, remained steadfast since the island country is home to the U.S. Fifth Fleet.

As such, “normal” today, as in the past, means pro-U.S. dictators, Islamist governments but of the pro-American kind, military occupations, regimes that violate human rights, hosts to U.S. armed forces and high-end customers of the American arms industry, and governments that intervene in the affairs of their neighbors. To be sure, none of this should actually be considered normal.

In reality, Iran’s conduct is not different from its regional counterparts. It violates human rights, intervenes in other countries either directly or by supporting armed groups, and is authoritarian like its pro-American neighbors. The only thing not “normal” about Iran’s actions is that they do not align with U.S. foreign policy goals as they did in the past. In fact, they often obstruct them, and that’s the point—a “normal nation” is allowed to do seemingly anything as long as its actions accord with U.S. interests in the Middle East.

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A 2nd sanctions-related story from a friend with family in Iran

A friend of mine has a cousin in Iran who works as a lawyer. This cousin’s husband is an engineer who runs his own business importing and selling German appliances. They are both civilians; neither of them have any relationship with the Iranian government. Yet, the US-imposed sanctions on Iran’s financial sector has hit them hard.

The sanctions have caused a spiraling exchange rate, meaning that less and less Iranian customers can buy such products that now cost so much that they are out of reach. Consequently, the lack of sales has put his company and the jobs of his employees in jeopardy. The couple have a little girl and boy to support. Should the company go under, they can rely on her training as a lawyer in the short-term to keep the family afloat. Yet, the employees, some of whom are the main breadwinners of their families, may not have such fallback options.

These are the unforeseen consequences of the US sanctions on Iran that go unmentioned and uncovered by the US media and government.

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