Nancy Lindisfarne writes: One of the reasons Middle East politics is so confusing is that the alliances between the major players keep shifting. Changes in the balance of power are often extremely complicated, and leave plenty of gaps in our understanding of what is going on. In these gaps Islamophobia thrives. This post is meant as an antidote to the Western racism that targets Iran.
The shenanigans we’ve been watching this past week in anticipation of the Israeli election on Tuesday, the 17th March are a measure of the scale of the changes that have been taking place over this past year. We shall write about the new political alignments at length in a later post. Here I want to mark what hasn’t changed nearly as much.
In 2005 I travelled in Iran for a month. I had recently left academic teaching to do art. Luckily, I had remnants of Persian left over from anthropological fieldwork in Iran in the 1960s, and fieldwork in Afghanistan in the 1970s. In 2005 Western propaganda against Iran was relentless and visually dominated by ugly images of dust, terrorists and women smothered in black veils. In Iran, however, people were kind, endlessly helpful, and above all, they lived their lives in colour!
When I got back to Britain, I put together a photographic exhibition which travelled to venues in London, Manchester and Oxford. My aim was didactic. I wanted to remind people that ordinary Iranians are just that – ordinary, pleasant people, who live lives not so very different from ours in the UK. Ten years have passed since 2005, but perhaps it’s not a bad time to bring out the photos again.
My trip started in Tehran.
I then flew with Iran Air from Tehran to Shiraz in the south of the country.
I travelled northwards to Isfahan.
From Isfahan I took public buses, past Netanj, the Iranian nuclear installation (a man I was chatting with on the bus pointed it out to me), and on to Kashan.
From Kashan I took another bus back to Tehran. The whole time I was travelling I wore shalwar-kameez and a long scarf, and not a chadar. I had absolutely no trouble travelling alone.
The central bus station in Tehran is in the south of Tehran. The friends I was visiting lived in the north. I was proud of myself for being able to change buses three times and not get utterly lost crossing the megalopolis of some 16 or more million people.
I stood in the back of the city buses, with the other women, eavesdropping. A national election was coming up and there were posters up all over the city. The women were looking at the posters as we passed, and talked politics vociferously, with humour and in ways that everyone on the bus could hear.
To me, this was an astonishing difference from the Iran I had visited in the 1960s and 1970s. Then even close friends were hesitant to whisper political opinions for fear of ending up in one of the Shah’s murderous jails.
This was a welcome change, and there were others, some of them surprising. There are more women in higher education than men, though the numbers of women in employment are not nearly so good. In response to the opium trade which has grown exponentially because of the American war in Afghanistan, Iran now has an enviable drug rehab programme (See Janne Bjerre Christensen’s Drugs, Deviancy and Democracy in Iran: The Interaction of State and Civil Society, 2011). But that said, the theocracy of the Ayatollahs is undemocratic, punishing and increasingly corrupt.
As for the Netanyahu shenanigans –
Over the last year or so, President Obama, and the United States government which has demonized Iran since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, has been seeking rapprochement with the Iranian Ayatollahs. The US government is talking about ending the viciously punitive sanctions which have crippled the Iranian economy, and seems willing to settle the ostensible difficulty over Iranian nuclear power.
The Iranian government is run explicitly as a Shia Muslim state, so the draughtboard of oil and sectarian alliances in the region is now liable to alter completely. For the US this will shift power away from the Sunni fighters of the Islamic State in northern Iraq and Syria, and away from the Saudi kingdom which is playing oil games with the US. Though mostly unmarked, this shift will also let the Syrian dictator, Assad, and his tyrannous regime off the hook.
Israel, itself a nuclear power, has acted as the American Rottweiler in the Middle East for decades. The shift has left the Israeli Prime Minister high and dry. Netanyahu is struggling for re-election as Israeli President for a fourth term. on Tuesday, 17 March.
Aware of his precarious position, Netanyahu used an invitation to address the US Congress on 3rd March to speak particularly to Zionist voters in Israel, saying, ‘Do a deal with Iran and nuclear war is inevitable’ (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/mar/03/netanyuahu-congress-iran-nuclear-deal-path-to-bomb ).
Seeing advantage for party political reasons, American Republicans set out to further sabotage President Obama and his efforts to bring Iran in from the cold. Forty-seven Republican American senators wrote an open letter to the Iranian leaders promising that a Republican president would reverse any agreement Obama negotiated with them.
Joe Biden, Obama’s Vice President said, ‘Honourable people can disagree over policy. But this is no way to make America safer or stronger’ (http://eedition.inyt.com/epaper/viewer.aspx ).
Meanwhile, god help the rest of us.