Feb 17th 2011

Washington's Valentine's Day Faux Pas in the Middle East

by Sharmine Narwani

Sharmine Narwani is a commentary writer and political analyst covering the Middle East, and a Senior Associate at St. Antony's College, Oxford University. She has a Master of International Affairs degree from Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs in both journalism and Mideast studies.

Valentine's Day, and not a whole lot of love in the Middle East, as clashes between government forces and protestors broke out in Bahrain, Iran and Yemen.

Washington, as usual, did nothing right.

After hemming and hawing through the widespread Egyptian uprising against staunch US-backed dictator Hosni Mubarak, the Obama administration leaped at the opportunity to support the Iranian demonstrators...and completely ignore those in Yemen and Bahrain.

Over the weekend, the US State Department set up a brand new Twitter account in the Persian language called @USAdarFarsi (which translates into "USA in Farsi") and proactively busted out these gems in anticipation of Iran protests on Monday:

RT @USAdarFarsi: US calls on #Iran to allow people to enjoy same universal rights to peacefully assemble, demonstrate as in Cairo.#25Bahman

RT @USAdarFarsi #Iran has shown that the activities it praised Egyptians for it sees as illegal, illegitimate for its own people.#25Bahman

RT @USAdarFarsi US State Dept recognizes historic role of social media among Iranians We want to join in your conversations #Iran#25Bahman

RT @USAdarFarsi in English: Egyptians=Tahrir ... Iranians=Azadi ... freedom of peaceful assembly for all. #25Bahman #25Jan #Egypt #Iran

RT @USAdarFarsi in English: Iranians in Sadiqieh square should have same right to protest as Egyptians in Tahrir square. #25Bahman #Jan25


Secretary of State Hilary Clinton spent the weekend spinning her perspectives on Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya and the US-funded Al Hurra, calling for political change in Iran, and openly supporting the aspirations of protestors there. Not a word on protests in US-backed Bahrain or Yemen however.

It is clear that Washington is irritated by Iranian government claims to have inspired the uprisings embroiling the Arab world right now, especially as these are taking place in countries the US once relied on to support its pro-Israel, anti-Iran regional policy positions.

But to actually come out in firm support of protestors in Iran, while remaining quiet about those taking place against their proxy Arab governments is also extremely hypocritical. It seems we never learn.

Western Media Toes the US Line
Worse yet were the media takes on events in Iran on Monday. With all the tweets and videos pouring in, there is still barely any verifiable information available - not that this has stopped both print and television media from jumping into the fray.

My favorite piece of disinformation is this MSNBC news segment where an Iran-based correspondent's audio feed is juxtaposed with video footage of absolutely massive crowds streaming through central Tehran squares and monuments. My eyes popped until I saw the discreet "Friday" date on the video -- the footage is from pro-government celebrations just three days earlier on the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution:


Another bit of disinformation -- now quoted widely in the western media -- came early on Monday with claims that one protester had already been killed by government forces. A closer look traces this tidbit to the semi-official Fars news agency which attributes the violence to protesters: "One person was shot dead and several were wounded by seditionists (opposition supporters) who staged a rally in Tehran."

Iranian police also claimed that one person was killed and nine members of security forces injured by members of the outlawed Mujahedeen-e Khalgh (MEK), which is listed on the State Department's list of terrorist groups. It looks, thus far, like all accounts of killings are originating from government -- and not opposition - sources.

And nobody seemed to have any sense of the size of the protest crowds hitting the streets. Even here on The Huffington Post, some eagle-eyed readers may have noticed the switch in the headlines from "tens of thousands" to "hundreds of thousands." A number of media sources switched to characterizing the crowds as in the hundreds of thousands when the Financial Times stated so later in the day. But a quick look at theFT article shows that they do not source that number from any credible information -- as far as we know, they could have picked it up from a blogpost.

Videos posted on blogs and media websites cannot be readily accepted as evidence of events or crowd sizes either - there is little ability to distinguish between those taken during the 2009 post-election protests and Monday's activities. Egypt and Tunisia did not have readily available footage of massive protests from recent years, so it was much easier to accept those coming out of Tunis and Cairo as authentic.

Many are pointing to the language used by demonstrators -- references to Mubarak, Egypt and Tunisia suggest a present day protest. But even pro-opposition live bloggers on Tehran Bureau and EA Worldviewcaution that these may have been edited and that verification remains difficult.

Meanwhile, in Bahrain we have actual new video footage of Bahraini forces shooting at crowds from close range AND photo evidence of at least one dead civilian, both acknowledged by government sources.

Today, Bahrain erupted again when ten thousand people streamed into Manama's Pearl Square "galvanized" by the death of a protestor on Monday and another on Tuesday. The silence from the Obama administration is resounding.


The US Role in Mideast Uprisings
The choices we make in the Middle East simply astound me. While all sorts of theories abound about why the region is spawning one revolution after another this year, I place my hat firmly in the "honor and dignity" camp.

Writing about this even before Tunisia hit our headlines in January, I argued that popular Arab "worldviews" have long been ignored by most of their governments. So although there is a deficit of representative government and an abundance of corruption and political/economic disparities in many of these countries, the Arab nations currently under fire have mainly been US-backed governments that have practiced our policy "double standards" in the Middle East.

These US allies are Tunisia, Egypt, the Palestinian Authority, Yemen, Algeria, Jordan, Bahrain and others likely yet to emerge. But those waiting for the Tunisian/Egyptian model of regime change to take place in Syria, Iran, Oman and Qatar can think again - protests in these countries would represent a whole other trend.

Right now, the long-simmering regional rage is exploding over regimes that collaborated with the US's policy initiatives for Israel, against Palestine, for Iraq, against Iran, for Israeli nukes, against Arab/Iranian nukes. These "degradations" rose to the surface with the convergence of 1) WikiLeaks revelations about their leaders and our policies, 2) the death of the US-sponsored 20-year Peace Process, and 3) the relatively new phenomenon of Arabs actually having access to this information -- via Al Jazeera, Twitter, Facebook and the blogosphere.


What's With the Iran Focus Then?
So I eagerly awaited the planned demonstrations on February 14 in Iran to see if this theory still holds or if protests in the Islamic Republic will shatter this trend. It looks, thus far, that whatever transpired in Iran on Monday does not have the legs to carry it into day two. But that will almost certainly not stop Washington's determination to wring a revolt out of its biggest regional foe.

We can try to do so to our own detriment. After decades of policy double standards, devastating invasions/wars, failed diplomatic and sanctions initiatives, and now the nail-in-the-coffin decision to veto the upcoming UN Security Council resolution on Israel's illegal settlements, our intervention anywhere in the region will not be welcomed. Washington only helps the Iranian government when it steps into the ring.

State Department Spokesman PJ Crowley on Monday illustrated, with great irony, our shortcomings in the region:

MR. CROWLEY: Well, that - what has guided us throughout the last three months and guides us in terms of how we focus on Iran is the core principles - the Secretary mentioned them again today - of restraint from violence, respect for universal rights, and political and social reform. There is a - it is hypocrisy that Iran says one thing in the context of Egypt but refuses to put its own words into action in its own country.

QUESTION: How about other countries - Bahrain, Yemen, or Algeria, or Jordan? Why you are not talking about those countries and you are condemning what is happening in Iran?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, actually, in the other countries there is greater respect for the rights of the citizens.


Furthermore, we still do not recognize that, for all its many shortcomings, the Iranian government still remains one of the more representative governments in the Middle East - its "worldview" popular both domestically and regionally - and that charges of electoral fraud after the June 2009 elections are far from conclusive.

So Washington can pull out all the stops it wants, but is unlikely to see the same kind of widespread uprisings throughout the Islamic Republic, in the same way we witnessed in both Tunisia and Egypt.

But it will try nevertheless.

As I get ready to post this article, I notice the State Department has eked out another three Iran Tweets in the past 30 minutes. Knock yourself out:

RT @USAdarFarsi: Iranian regime is praising what happened in #Egypt at the same time it is oppressing its own people #Iran #25Bahman #25Jan

RT @USAdarFarsi #SecClinton: I find it very strange that #Iran has the courage to give lessons in #democracy to others. #25Bahman

RT @USAdarFarsi #SecClinton: #Iran is a glaring example of a revolution that was stolen from the people. #25Bahman

Become a Facebook fan of Sharmine Narwani

 

Follow Sharmine Narwani on Twitter: www.twitter.com/snarwani

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Jul 29th 2022
EXTRACT: ".... the likelihood is that Biden, who spent his life as a senator, played a central behind-the-scenes role in turning Manchin around and keeping the Democratic Party Senators together on this pared-down version of Build Back Better. Biden’s legislative accomplishments, not to mention his administrative ones, will likely end up being very impressive for the first two years of his presidency. ------ In matters of climate, every ton of CO2 you don’t put into the atmosphere is a decrease in how hard life will be for our grandchildren. They will have reason to be grateful to President Biden and the Democratic Party if this bill becomes law."
Jul 29th 2022
EXTRACTS: "Right-wing media outlets including Fox News, One America News (OAN), Newsmax, and talk radio are grossly abusing the right to free speech and are causing profound, if not irreparable damage to our country at home and abroad. They have been engaged in these deliberate practices of spreading poisonous misinformation all in the name of free speech." ---- "A team at MIT, analyzing propaganda techniques in the news, underscores the use of logical fallacies – such as strawmen (the misrepresentation of the other’s position), red herrings (the provision of irrelevancies), false dichotomies (offering two alternatives as the only possibilities), and whataboutism (a diversionary tactic to avoid directly addressing an issue). ---- Whataboutism is worth considering more closely because it is becoming ubiquitous among Republicans – perhaps this is not surprising given that it is certainly Trump’s “favorite dodge.” It is one of the fundamental rules by which he operates: when you are criticized, say that someone else is worse. In an interview with Trump, Bill O’Reilly states the obvious fact that “Putin is a killer,” and who can forget Trump’s response: “There are a lot of killers. You got a lot of killers. What, you think our country is so innocent?” That is classic whataboutism. And it is also of course all over Fox News’ most popular line-up."
Jul 24th 2022
EXTRACTS: "For three hours, against the unequivocal advice of his counsel, friends, and family, Trump purposefully and steadfastly declined to give the mob he had summoned any signal to disperse, to exit the building peacefully, or to simply cease threatening the life of his vice president or other members of Congress." ------ "Trump is corrupt to the core, a traitor who deserves nothing but contempt and to spend the rest of his life behind bars because he remains a menace to this country and an existential threat to our democratic institutions."
Jul 21st 2022
EXTRACT: "For some countries, diasporas also are not new. Just ask the Russians. For three-quarters of a century, Stalin’s NKVD and its successor, the KGB, kept close tabs on expatriate Russians, constantly worrying about the threat they might pose. And now, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s security service, the FSB, is continuing the tradition. According to recent FSB estimates, almost four million Russians left the country in the first three months of this year. Obviously, FSB statistics are hard to verify. But the sheer magnitude of this year’s departures is striking."
Jul 20th 2022
EXTRACTS: "We need leaders who will be honest about our problems in the short, medium, and long term. We are becoming poorer than our neighbors, with our per capita growth and productivity lagging behind theirs. We confront surging energy prices, soaring inflation, and public-sector strikes. Our fiscal deficit is uncomfortably high. Our influence is diminished. Far from recognizing these challenges, let alone proposing sensible solutions, the candidates to succeed Johnson are trying to win votes with reckless proposals like ever-larger tax cuts." ----- "There is one exception. Former Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak refuses to abandon the notion that expenditure should bear some relationship to revenue. "
Jul 13th 2022
EXTRACT: "Looking ahead, five factors could make today’s energy crisis even worse. First, Putin has opened a second front in the conflict by cutting back on the contracted volumes of natural gas that Russia supplies to Europe. The goal is to prevent Europeans from storing enough supplies for next winter, and to drive prices higher, creating economic hardship and political discord. In his speech in June at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, Putin made his reasoning clear: “Social and economic problems worsening in Europe” will “split their societies” and “inevitably lead to populism … and a change of the elites in the short term.” ...... As it is, Germany is now anticipating the need for gas rationing, and its minister for economic affairs, Robert Habeck, warns of a “Lehman-style contagion” (referring to the 2008 financial crisis) if Europe cannot manage today’s energy-induced economic disruptions."
Jul 5th 2022
EXTRACT: "Fortunately, I am not alone in claiming that the survival of democracy in the US is gravely endangered. The American public has been aroused by the decision overturning Roe. But people need to recognize that decision for what it is: part of a carefully laid plan to turn the US into a repressive regime. We must do everything we can to prevent that. This fight ought to include many people who voted for Trump in the past."
Jul 2nd 2022
EXTRACT: "The Israeli philosopher Avishai Margalit described this succinctly in his book On Compromise and Rotten Compromises. In “politics as economics,” material interests are “subject to bargaining, everything is negotiable, whereas in the religious picture, centered on the idea of the holy, the holy is non-negotiable.” This, then, is why politics in the US is now in such a perilous state. More and more, the secular left and the religious right are engaged in a culture war, revolving around sexuality, gender, and race, where politics is no longer negotiable. When that happens, institutions start breaking down, and the stage is set for charismatic demagogues and the politics of violence."
Jul 2nd 2022
EXTRACT: "...EU enlargement is essentially a political decision by member states, based on a multitude of considerations that sometimes include dramatic events. Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine is such a turning point."
Jun 29th 2022
EXTRACT: "Most market analysts seem to think that central banks will remain hawkish, but I am not so sure. I have argued that they will eventually wimp out and accept higher inflation – followed by stagflation – once a hard landing becomes imminent, because they will be worried about the damage of a recession and a debt trap, owing to an excessive build-up of private and public liabilities after years of low interest rates." ----- "There is ample reason to believe that the next recession will be marked by a severe stagflationary debt crisis. As a share of global GDP, private and public debt levels are much higher today than in the past, having risen from 200% in 1999 to 350% today (with a particularly sharp increase since the start of the pandemic). Under these conditions, rapid normalization of monetary policy and rising interest rates will drive highly leveraged zombie households, companies, financial institutions, and governments into bankruptcy and default."
Jun 28th 2022
EXTRACT: "It is tempting to conclude that today’s central bankers are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Maybe if they sit tight, they will ride out the storm. Then-Fed Chair Paul Volcker was Public Enemy Number One in the United States in the early 1980s, when he squeezed post-oil-shock inflation out of the system with double-digit interest rates. But in his later years he was revered, and became a national treasure, called on to advise successive presidents in any financial emergency. ----- But central bankers would be wise not to assume that their reputations will automatically recover, and that the status quo ante will be restored. We live in a more disputatious age than the 1980s. Public institutions are more regularly challenged and held to account by far less reverential legislators." ----- "Moreover, former central bankers have joined the chorus of critics. Former Fed Chair Ben Bernanke, breaking the unwritten rule not to reproach one’s successors, has said that today’s Fed made “a mistake” by responding slowly to inflation. And Bailey’s immediate predecessors, Mervyn King and Mark Carney, have weighed in, too, with challenges to the BOE’s policy. The fabric of the central banking fraternity is fraying."
Jun 25th 2022
EXTRACT: "Public opinion in Belarus remains firmly against involvement into the war with Ukraine. Moreover, according to a Chatham House survey, 40% of Belarusians do not support Russia’s war, compared to 32% who do, while around half of those questioned see predominately negative consequences of the war for Belarus (53%) and for themselves (48%). The Belarusian military and security services are also aware of the determined and skilful resistance that Ukrainian forces have put up against Russia and the risks that they would therefore be running if they entered the war against Ukraine. This, in turn, means that the risk to Lukashenko himself remains that he might lose his grip on power, a grip which depends heavily on the loyalty of his armed forces." ---- "Ultimately, Belarus may not be on the brink of being plunged into war quite yet, but its options to avoid such a disaster are narrowing."
Jun 20th 2022
EXTRACT: "Russification (the policy of enforcing Russian culture on populations) appears to be being reinforced by ethnic cleansing. Last month the Ukrainian parliament’s commissioner for human rights, Liudmyla Denisova, informed the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, that 1.3 million Ukrainians, including 223,000 children, had been forcibly deported to Russia."
Jun 11th 2022
EXTRACT: "If Trump had his way, then Vice-President Pence would have also broken his oath to the constitution and derailed the certification of electoral votes. Our continued existence as a Republic might very well have hung on Pence’s actions that day. The mob’s response was to call for Pence to be hanged, and a noose and scaffold was erected apparently for that very purpose. What was Trump’s reaction when he was told that the mob was calling for Pence’s summary execution? His words were: “Maybe our supporters have the right idea.” Mike Pence “deserves” it."
Jun 10th 2022
EXTRACTS: "Speaking to journalist Sophie Raworth on the BBC’s Sunday Morning show recently, former war crimes prosecutor Sir Howard Morrison, now an advisor to the Ukraine government, highlighted the dangers posed by the negative – often insulting and dehumanising – statements made by some Russian politicians and media personalities about Ukraine and its people." ---- "The conditions and attitudes described by Morrison have existed for centuries: Russians have viewed Ukrainians as inferior since before the Soviet era." ----- "And, as Morrison said, stereotyping and denigrating a people as inferior or lacking agency makes atrocities and looting more likely to happen, as we are seeing in Ukraine."
Jun 9th 2022
EXTRACT: "Unless Russia realises that the west is willing and able to push back, a new, stable security order in Europe will not be possible. Concessions to Russia, by Ukraine or the EU and Nato, are not the way to achieve this. That this has been realised beyond Ukraine’s most ardent supporters in the Baltic states, Poland, the UK and the US is clear from German support for strengthening Nato’s northern flank and a general increase in Nato members’ defence spending."
Jun 8th 2022
EXTRACT: "Highly civilized people can turn into barbarians when demagogues and dictators exploit their fears and trigger their most atavistic instincts. Rape, torture, and massacres often happen when soldiers invade foreign countries. Commanding officers sometimes actively encourage such behavior to terrorize an enemy into submission. And sometimes it occurs when the officer corps loses control and discipline breaks down. Japanese and Germans know this, as do Serbs, Koreans, Americans, Russians, and many others."
Jun 1st 2022
EXTRACTS: "Like Metternich, Kissinger commits the fatal error of believing that a few wise policymakers can impose their will on the world. Worse, he believes they can halt domestically generated change and the power of nationalism. Many years ago, this is what Senator William Fulbright termed the “arrogance of power.” This approach failed in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. It is also doomed to fail in Russia and Ukraine." ------ "Not surprisingly, Kissinger misunderstands Russia. He appears to believe that, because Russia has been an “essential part of Europe” for over four centuries, it is therefore fated to remain so for the foreseeable future.The claim is completely at odds with history." ---- "Finally, Kissinger misunderstands the implications of his own analysis for Western relations with Russia. “We are facing,” he said, “a situation now where Russia could alienate itself completely from Europe and seek a permanent alliance elsewhere." ---- "But what’s so bad about Russia’s isolating itself from Europe and becoming a vassal state of China? "
Jun 1st 2022
EXTRACTS: "According to the latest figures from China’s National Bureau of Statistics, China’s population grew from 1.41212 billion to just 1.41260 billion in 2021 – a record low increase of just 480,000, a mere fraction of the annual growth of eight million or so common a decade ago." ----- "China’s total fertility rate (births per woman) was 2.6 in the late 1980s – well above the 2.1 needed to replace deaths. It has been between 1.6 and 1.7 since 1994, and slipped to 1.3 in 2020 and just 1.15 in 2021."
Jun 1st 2022
EXTRACTS: "Casualties are very high. A very conservative estimate of overall Russian losses is that they have lost more troops killed since February 24 than in ten years of fighting in Afghanistan. This implies well over 40,000 men taken out of the fight, including the wounded." ----- "Away from the cauldron of Donbas, Belarus has been rattling its somewhat rusty sabre by deploying troops to its border with Ukraine. This is unlikely to trouble Kyiv. The Belarus president, Alexander Lukashenko, is well aware that he may need them at home to shore up his shaky regime."