Those who work in the field of communications, or in the words of Ali Larijani, Iran’s chief negotiator at the Iran IAEA/EU-3 talks, have stepped into it the field, know that the international sophisticated media have perfected the art of effectively molding public opinion. Recently the CNN broadcast a film on US public opinion on political issues. In the film, a journalist asks two questions of ordinary citizens: Where is the Middle East, and what kind of a place is it?
The answers Americans gave is perplexing. None of the 23 people asked could answer them correctly. Three of them name Iran in reference to the Middle East, while the rest mentioned Cuba, Brazil, even Canada, France, Italia, Korea, and Mexico.
The answers to the second question were just as confounding. Without exception, all of them used such harsh adjectives such as enemy, dangerous, disaster, headache to depict the Middle East.. The CNN field reporter then held a map of the world and asked people to put an object on where Iran was. It was appalling that only one person, and he too after a hesitation, put it in the right place. The other places that were marked as Iran were Africa, North America, next to Australia, and Japan.
If this film alone is studied, the conclusion would be that the US government has succeeded to plant this idea in the minds of its citizens that the Middle East means Iran, and Iran means a thorny enemy and a calamity. This is a big success for two groups that appear to be in opposition to each other but in practice are in unison: Iranian hardliners and a group of Zionist redneck American warmongers. These two groups have worked to pin Iran and the US against each other during the last quarter century. And each of them derives a benefit from this.
So what will be the result of all of this? I think the first is that if the US comes to the conclusion that its mid- and long-term economic and political interests need – and would thus benefit from - another war, something that has happened before in the 20th century, then Iran would be at the center of the options and the leading candidate for a war against. The 24-hour reports of US media have already prepared the usually simple-minded American public opinion for this. What remains in this scenario is the assessments of the thinking circles and the realities of the day. One of the considerations that impacts the thinking circles is the state of the last war the US has engaged in, i.e. Iraq. One may safely assume that so long as conditions in Iraq have not been stabilized to an acceptable level of control and thus stability, conditions are not ripe for another military engagement. But this is only one of the many considerations for that decision. If the US military establishment comes to the conclusion that it can engage in another war, despite the conditions in Iraq, and if Iran provides more justification to further convince the American public opinion, for example it to raise to 45 percent from 30, and if the economic pressures inside the US reach a point where war may seem as the only way to change that, and of course other ifs, the conditions in Iraq will lose their deterring effect.
The Iranian government has faced a tough choice regarding Iraq in recent years. With the departure of Saddam Hussain’s Sunni regime and the accession to power of Shiis and Kurds, there is now an opportunity to increase its influence in the country. To turn this potential into a reality, Iran’s leaders would have to exercise the kind of sophistication and prudence that would win over the Iraqi Shiites and their leaders. This is not a grueling task for Iran and the Iraqi Shiites because strong ties already exist between the two. One of the things Iran would have to forego in its relations with Iraq is its demand for war reparations for the eight-year war between the two neighbors. But this is not easy as it conflicts with another interest it has. This one relates to stability in Iraq. If the decision-makers in Tehran throw their full support and influence to rapidly establish the Shiite regime in Iraq and even help neutralize the current opposition to it, then they are also helping the American come to the point where Iraq will no longer be an issue in their drive to solve the other regional problems, i.e. Iran. They would thus be giving the American military precisely what they want to close the Iraqi chapter.
It is the type of paradox that comes up often in politics. This is contrary to the beliefs of the hardliners in Tehran who assume that politics means deciding between “good” and “evil”. It is like a patient who has two conflicting illnesses in which any one medicine that cures one, aggravates the other. In such situations doctors hospitalize the patient so that they can minutely control the treatment and application of the medicine for one illness so that it does not aggravate the other.
Ever since September 11, 2001, when the Pentagon hastily pulled out its plans and created an image of Muslims that some circles in the US and in Europe dreamed of, it was clear that Iran would be in a difficult situation. Even simple minds like mine warned that we should not be happy that our enemies, i.e. the Taliban and Saddam, were now trapped. We had to look beyond that and get ready for it. Neighborhood with the US, which is today almost complete, requires new thoughts.
We are now in the post September 11 era. One view is that of the kind that those in or from Kayhan newspaper in Tehran have. They say they are happy that the US is now in our neighborhood because we can hurt it. The other view is what our diplomacy machinery has held, i.e. we should promote confidence-building policies that do not provoke others, and that aim at relaxation of tensions in the region. This is of course contrary to what the hardliners in Iran and the neocons in the US want and share – both are war mongers.
Prior to September 11, 2001, we Iranians were in a satisfactory situation. The reformers were in power whose goal was to relax the tensions Iran faced from abroad. In the US too, democrats lead by Clinton were in power. This was an exceptional situation. President Khatami took a small and cautious step towards the US. Clinton returned it with two small steps. Suddenly Iran’s hardliners were terrified that their slogans would soon die and that their “great satan” would be gone, and with it the scapegoats for their failures and incompetence. They all got into action against what was going on, until the opportunity drifted away. Had that momentum continued, Americans would have responded differently to the questions of the CNN reporter when asked bout Iran. Furthermore, Iran would not have been on the agenda of the Pentagon and the State Department in the United States, and its case would not be bouncing back and forth between Europe and the US.
The governments in power today in Tehran and in Washington have a different view. Iran’s diplomacy tries to juggle with the two interests it has in Iraq, and I would admit it has so far not done too bad. But for how long and what next?
During the Khatami period when the hardliners wrecked the reformers’ attempts to institute deep and fundamental reforms in Iran, and to end the hostility between Tehran and Washington, his team aptly and in desperation turned to Europe. Under the pretext of the nuclear issue, it began to tango with the three major European powers. So Iran began to take advantage of the Euro-American differences, something that George Bush had said should not take place. But even that game is now over, thanks to the hardliners entrenched in Tehran.
The recent demonstrations in front of the British embassy in Tehran and UK’s accusations that Iran had a hand in the recent Iraqi skirmishes in southern Iraq, made headlines in the international press. At the same time Britain announces that the insurgents in Iraq who recently killed a number of British soldiers used Iranian supplied arms. So now the public opinion on both sides is ready for a confrontation.
What is happening reminds me of Iran’s foreign policy during the days of Prime Minister Mossadegh in the 50s. He tried to show to the Iranian hardliners of the time that there was a difference between leftist-oriented labor party and the right-wing conservatists in Britain, just as there was between the Democrats and the Republicans in the US. However, by looking at the Tudeh communist party publications and those of the right-wing opposition to Mossadegh, one realizes that they negated such differences between the political parties in Britain and in the US. Soon the labor party lost the elections in Britain and conservatists lead by Winston Churchill occupied Downing Street. In the US too, democrats lost their grip and Republican General Eisenhower went to the White House. This is when the two countries across the Atlantic joined hands and their product was the coup d’etat in Iran against Mossadegh. Iranians paid a heavy price for that event. Everybody paid dearly, even those who after 25 years saw an opportunity to rebuild the country. And even the Shah himself. The generation after the 1979 revolution too had to pay. Only Mossadegh came out victorious, all of whose mistakes were condoned and he became a national hero. The virtues of his opponents too were ignored and his dedicated enemies at the time, now have turned into his sympathizers. Today, we still quarrel over the issue, indicating our extremisms.
Today, the right-wing politicians inside the new government remind the public of Mossadegh’s greatness and the movement to nationalize the Iranian oil industry in an effort to mobilize the people through their national sentiments. Mossadegh’s traditional enemies, on the other, complain about the reference to Mossadegh, while a major street in Tehran is still named after him. It is ironic and comic.
The power of each of the state, the US and Iran speaks of the influence of their word. The Americans have launched a rumor that Ahmadinejad had a hand in the Iranian hostage taking of the American embassy staff in 1979 while the Iranian ayatollah’s claim that the US has provided $40 million to Iranian religious speakers to sing inappropriate religious hymns to deface religious events.
Go figure out which of these two claims will spread among the public. And what will its results be. We can only watch.