Posted by: sean | August 7, 2009

Exiled hopes

iran fireI don’t envy the position of the Obama administration, faced with how to treat Iran after the elections this summer and the protest movement that sprung up afterward. My sympathies, of course, lie with those protesting against what seems to have been a crudely fixed vote. That  being said, Washington is in an awkward position, since its pre-election strategy was to engage Tehran, but it’s difficult to do so now without appearing callous and unsympathetic to the democratic aspirations of a large segment of the Iranian population.

On the other  hand, it seems possible or even probable to me that any overt action by the US in support of Mousavi’s partisans would merely bolster the regime’s discourse of foreign meddling and probably backfire, doing more harm than good.

So it has been with sympathy and heartache that I have watched my ex-pat Iranian friends from the US and Europe fighting what is starting to look like a losing battle against the regime in general and Ahmadinejad in particular.

I have mostly been privy to this battle through Facebook and email, being deluged with articles and rallying posts about Iranian opposition politics by friends of mine. Most of these positions are ones that I can support without much hesitancy, but every once in a while, I come across allegations that seem ridiculous for someone who lives in the Arab Middle East.

I recently had an online debate with an Iranian friend about the allegation that Hezbollah had sent 5,000 fighters to crack down on dissidents in Tehran. This allegation is silly for a number of reasons, the first being the number (Hezbollah had a third that number of fighters in its war with Israel in 2006) and the second being the idea that a country like Iran, with a security apparatus that includes hundreds of thousands if not millions of people through the military and paramilitary militias would need a handful of Lebanese guys to come crack some heads. Also, the idea that your average Iranian could tell what sort of accent someone had in Farsi or distinguish between a Palestinian, Lebanese, Iraqi or Khuzestani accent in Arabic seems pretty far-fetched. Similar allegations have been made about Palestinians this summer and, according to Dabashi, Afghans before that:

A racist rumor is now roaming through the streets of Tehran (exacerbated by even more racist instigation by monarchists from abroad)—that among the security forces beating up on the demonstrators are people who do not speak Persian, that they speak Arabic, that they are dark skin and thus not Iranian—from Lebanon, Palestine, or Iraq.

The whitewash imagination of those who make up these stories has habitually dismissed Iranians from the southern climes of their homeland as “Arabs,” as if being Arab was a misdemeanor. This idea of fictive foreigners beating up and killing Iranians used to be Afghan when millions of Afghan refugees fled their homeland and sought refuge in Iran in the 1980’s; now they have become Arabs. The same racist imagination in and out of Iran now seeks to fish from this muddy water.

So when I came across this article on Facebook by an Iranian-American spook the other day calling for… well, it’s not really clear what… I was a little disconcerted by the direction that some of the anti-regime rhetoric has taken and the points it shares with neo-conservative policy on Iran.

I was intrigued, then, when I came across a Machiavelli quote about exiles from his Discourses on Livy on Walt’s blog (my translation is slightly different than his):

One must consider, therefore, how vain are both the word and promises of those who find themselves deprived of their homeland. Accordingly, with respect to their word, it must be assumed that any time they can return to their native land by any other means than with your assistance, they will abandon you and draw near to others, notwithstanding whatever promises they have made to you. As for their vain promises and hopes, their desire to return home is so intense that they naturally believe many things which are false, and to them they add many things with guile, so that between the things they believe and the things they say they believe to fill you with hope, they fill you up with so much hope that if you rely upon it, you either incur expenses or undertake an enterprise in which you are ruined.

Walt links the quote to a long tradition that goes from the Peloponnesian Wars up to Ahmad Chalabi, and I think that despite sympathy for the Iranian cause, it is important to keep this advice in mind and refrain from uncritically accepting all of the Iranian opposition’s claims, keeping in mind that those that are incorrect or exaggerated actually do harm to the opposition cause in Iran.



  1. Great post! thank you. you have a new reader from iran.

  2. Thanks for the kind words, Shahrokh.

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