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On Wednesday June 7, a terrorist attack in Iran targeted the parliament building in the capital city Tehran and the shrine of the Islamic Republic’s founder, Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, on the southern outskirts of the city. The Islamic State took responsibility for the attacks that killed at least twelve people and injured 42.
People in Tehran and across Iran are in shock. A Tehran-based journalist, Reza Khaasteh, working for Iran Front Page, reflecting the sentiments of millions of Iranians, called the attacks “unprecedented,” especially as they targeted very symbolic state institutions. He told Al-Jazeera, “We did not have any similar attack in Iran for a long time. This one is like those that happened in Europe.”
These attacks come at a time of intensifying tensions between the Saudi-allied Arab states and the ‘Shiite bloc’ led by Iran. President Trump’s visit to the Middle East, and particularly his meeting with the Saudi king has, as intended by Trump, added extra agitation to the already-tense relations between the regional rival powers.
In this context, it is natural that the Iranian government and their allies, lobbyists and functionaries should accuse Saudi Arabia as the instigator of the attacks. The claim of responsibility and the videos posted on IS websites, however, appear to be genuine.
As much as the Iranian government would like to pretend and make believe that this was a Saudi-instigated plot, this attack is indicative of another dynamic taking root in our region. This terrorist attack in Tehran is in fact an indication that the theocratic republic of Iran is not immune to the laws of blowback. This attack was also meant to be a smack in the face of the Iranian citizens. So, while we mourn the loss of life in Tehran and while we are outraged, we must also give some sober thoughts to how we got here.
It might be easy to forget, but some key historical facts must not be forgotten. Iran’s state participated in the invasion and destruction of Iraq; too willingly at that. For more than a decade Iran had housed, fed and trained the Badr Bridages, Iraqi Shiite militias opposed to Saddam Hussain, who in coordination with the U.S. forces participated in the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003. That was Iran’s ‘in’ into the Iraqi quagmire. The Iranian regime stayed engaged all along, and later on helped to consolidate the reign of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki (2006-2014), who vastly expanded the role of Shiite militias in combating the Iraqi insurgents, mostly Sunnis, further fracturing the Iraqi society along sectarian lines, thereby fueling the rise of extremist Sunni militias. Iran’s involvement in part-running the security establishment in Iraq continues to follow the same sectarian-based line of operation to this day.
Iran’s nurturing of Iraqi Shiite militias meant that even while that country’s central government was wholly incapable of providing the most basic services, employment or security, any expression of dissent or peaceful protest demanding the most basics of life would be met by live bullets, jailing of thousands and torture. This was the beginning of the vicious cycle of increasing intensification of sectarian violence; a beginning half-made in Iran (desire for Shiite sectarian dominance in Iraq, not a democratic Iraq for all its citizens, a desire shared by the Americans) and made possible by the U.S. invasion and the physical destruction of Iraqi social infrastructure. Both those factors contributed to conditions that are detrimental to democratic developments, and paved the path to the absolute sectarian fracturing of the Iraqi society.
To add more justification to the already mounting hatred among the Arab masses toward Iran’s expansionist schemes, Iran has intervened brutally in Syria for the past six years and has greatly deepened further the Sunni-Shiite divide in the region. The detailed extent of the Iranian involvement in Syria is well documented, and its several-volume history yet to be written, and well beyond the scope of this writing. Still, we must bear in mind a few key points. Iran has a force of at least eighty-to-ninety thousand fighters of its own (including regular military forces, as well as Revolutionary Guards and Basiji forces) in Syria to fight on behalf of the butcher of more than four hundred and fifty thousand people in Syria. Iran has also organized massive recruitment efforts to send tens of thousands of Afghan, Iraqi, Pakistani and other fighters to Syria (close to sixty thousand of such foreign fighters), and pays the salaries of up to 250,000 militia members, agents and assorted security forces, and has also contributed massively to the industrial scale torture infrastructure in Syria. Iran has reportedly spent approximately $100 billion in Syria.
The rationale given by the Iranian government for the expenditure of such huge amounts of money and collective human effort for their involvement in Syria is a surprisingly familiar one: “We have to fight them over there, so we don’t have to fight them here.” This is the rationale given by all invading powers engaged in neo-colonial or imperialist ventures, or those bent on establishing hegemony in their region, as is the case with Iran.
During the Iranian presidential elections that concluded last month in May, consciously or at a more sub-conscious level, the Iranian people must have felt or sensed something akin to what most Americans have by now become totally unconscious of: the feeling of ‘imperialist privilege’. Let me explain.
In the pragmatist (not reformist) corner, Rouhani was facing a challenge from a hard-line bruiser of a candidate backed by the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, our version of Pope. People both in the country and outside were fearful that with the ascent of Trump to the American presidency and with his belligerent attitude and rhetoric against Iran, the Iranian establishment would choose to go with another incarnation of Ahmadi-nejad (who did register to run to be president again, but was disqualified), in the person of Ebrahim Raisi, the notorious former prosecutor in charge of mass executions of political prisoners in the 1980s and 1990s.
Thousands of political prisoners, the most courageous of our people, and the most innocent, were shot en masse or hanged on masse at the orders of the hateful Raisi, who personifies a most horrid re-enactment of former state-sanctioned mass murders of the political opposition. As if the economic and social conditions were not suffocating enough, people were horrified at the prospect of what it would mean to have Raisi as president.
[For the American readers, that would be the equivalent of having sheriff Joe Arpaio from Maricopa County, Arizona, be the U.S. president, as the executive head of a governmental apparatus ultimately under the total control of Jerry Falwell, in economic conditions like the 2008-2009 crash, plus high inflation and high unemployment, and minus the first amendment, the fourth amendment and, hell, minus any democratic constitutional assurances of any kind that guarantee any rights for the citizens.]
When Rouhani, the mild-mannered incumbent pragmatist, won by a landslide and the results were announced as such, the people were jubilant, and for a moment their belief in the system was strengthened and perhaps they felt that it was possible, and even perhaps financially feasible, to hope for the better.
In retrospect, one can see how wisely the establishment played it, letting the people’s vote in the elections stand; for the moment let’s forget all the legal and social conditions that make a mockery of the very label ‘elections’ to be applied to such events in Iran. That said, it is clear that the establishment saw that it could not afford to insult people on a mass scale, again, at this juncture.
Poverty in Iran is rampant, while rates of addiction to hard drugs are at all time highs, and youth unemployment is well above 25%, while inflation reigns mercilessly, eroding people’s purchasing power daily. People in Iran have eyes. They can see all the excuses provided by the government for the sorry state of the economy as mere justifications. People know the extent and the depth of the corruption, as they have to deal with it on a daily basis, seeing all the theft by the high officials, while ordinary citizens need to bribe petty officials on a regular basis to get the most mundane bureaucratic chores done, from getting a license to receiving an official document they are entitled to.
People can see that a good portion of the ruling class has an active interest in destroying local industries since they can obtain faster and more lucrative profits by importing cheap Chinese goods and selling them at a good margin. People can see the super rich and the sons of the clergy driving around in Maserati’s and Lamborghini’s while at least a quarter of the population goes to bed hungry, and more than half of the workforce has to hold two or three jobs just to keep up with the inflation.
And the Iranian people can see how their national riches, earned from the rent on our national resources, oil and gas, are being wasted in Syria by the billions monthly, killing hundreds of thousands of poor Syrians, and creating an endless line of Arab masses who now truly hate us, and will be lining up to harm us. Or maybe Iranian people don’t see this last one clearly enough just yet.
In the context of such miserable economic and social conditions, it can be assumed that the establishment could not have afforded to have millions of ‘its own’ people take to the streets again, in protest, especially at a time when the regime’s security forces are spread thin keeping their own people down on top of fighting for Assad and his criminal regime, while struggling to uphold a corrupt sectarian regime in Iraq. So, the machinery of the decision making deemed it wise to allow the vote of the people to stand. That’s imperialist privilege, even if their influence is just regional, and even if the ‘privilege’ that the people get to enjoy is merely keeping a very shabby pretence of an electoral system in place. The false lesson is this: externalize your conflicts, so you can afford to throw your people a bone once in a while.
Now with the June 7 terrorist attacks in the heart of Tehran, the people of Iran will have to think hard about their government’s involvement in Syria. We can be sure that the government of Iran, just like the governments of the U.S., the U.K., France and Russia, will keep talking in the language of ‘war on terror’ and will keep insisting that, “We fight them over there, so we won’t have to fight them here.” But, just like the people in the U.S., the U.K., France and Russia, the people of Iran, too, must now deliberate on some hard existential truths and must make some very difficult choices.
It may help to start by answering this question: Why do they hate us so much?
The citizens of Iran have the same two choices as the citizens of the U.S., the U.K., France or Russia or any other regional or global bully. Choice number one: accept and internalize the racism inherent in the rationale presented by the ruling elites, and become consistent racists believing that your soldiers are in foreign lands killing people so as to bring about a world that only you and your kind can bring about. Choice number two: reevaluate your criteria, and realize that you are inviting ‘them’ to come knocking on your door because you send your foot soldiers over there to kill their people.
Blowback recognizes no exceptions. We may think we’re exceptional, and we may believe that it won’t happen to us again. However, Iranian society just received its first blowback. Now the people of Iran must recognize the price of ‘imperialist privilege’. Let’s hope we reach correct conclusions.