US-Iran Standoff ‘Bad News’ For Democracy, Says Nader Hashemi

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A “rogue element” within Iran’s Revolutionary Guards was most likely behind the alleged plot to assassinate Saudi Arabia ambassador in Washington, says Middle East expert Nader Hashemi, adding that the people of Iran would in the end have to “pay a huge price” as a result of possible new economic sanctions against the country.

In an interview with the Green Voice of Freedom, Assistant Professor of Middle East and Islamic Politics at the University of Denver said that “the most probable and likely scenario is that elements within the Quds force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) were indeed planning” the operation to eliminate the Saudi ambassador to the United States.

Less than a week ago, Attorney General Eric Holder claimed that US authorities had charged two Iranians over a plot to kill Adel Al-Jubeir, the Saudi ambassador to America, as “the opening act” of a major terror attack on American soil. “This conspiracy was conceived, sponsored and directed from Iran,” alleged Holder.

Mansoor Arbabsiar, a 56-year old man from Texas and one of the men accused of playing an instrumental role in the alleged plot, has already been arrested by US authorities. Nevertheless some analysts have expressed doubt that the used-car salesman, nicknamed “Jack” due to his love for whiskey, was chosen by the IRGC to hire a hitman from a Mexican drug cartel to murder Al-Jubeir.

Hashemi, author of Islam, Secularism and Liberal Democracy: Toward a Democratic Theory for Muslim Societies and co-author of The People Reloaded: The Green Movement and the Struggle for Iran’s Future, says Iran’s readiness to examine the available evidence “suggests that even authorities in Iran are open to the possibility that someone on their side was involved in this plot.” He noted that despite the current pressure on the Iranian regime, it was not yet clear whether the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei or even high-ranking IRGC officers had been aware of the plot.

Regarding the consequences of the assassination charge put forth, Hashemi argued that the case meant “any possible dialogue between the U.S. and Iran about their outstanding differences leading to a restoration of diplomatic relations will not take place until there is either regime change in Iran or a new government elected in the U.S.” He also predicted a strengthening of hardliners in both countries,  and that “the voices of moderation will be weakened.”

In the interview, Hashemi suggested it was possible that elements inside the IRGC might have had a number of reasons for launching such an attack. He noted that the steady deterioration of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the latter’s attempts to encourage the US to attack Iran by “cutting off the head of the snake” as well as “bogus” claims made hardliners about Saudi support for pro-democracy Green Movement to topple the Iranian regime might have triggered zealous figures inside Iran’s elite fighting force to turn to such an operation. Hashemi also cited the Iranian regime’s willingness to resort to terror attacks on foreign soil in the past as well as Saudi Arabia’s role in recent revolts in Bahrain and Syria as possible explonations for the move.

Since its conception, the Arab Spring has opened a new chapter in Iranian-Saudi relations. In Bahrain the Iranian regime’s response was to side with the protesters, while the Saudis deployed troops in the small Persian Gulf Sheikhdom to assist the Al-Khalifa dynasty in quashing the rebellion.

However, in Syria the two countries’ roles were completely reversed as Iran was seen as actively supporting the authoritarian regime of Bashar Assad. “If Assad is toppled, it would be a major setback for Iranian influence in the region because it would deeply affect the status of Hezbollah in Lebanon,” Hashemi explained.

When asked about the possibility of military action as a result of the recent escalation in tension between Iran and the US, Hashemi pointed out that compared to the Bush years, “the political situation inside the United States has drastically changed in terms of foreign wars.”

“The projection of US military force abroad is now deeply unpopular among the American public who are today are focused on the problems of their economy. Moreover, the Obama Administration has no interest in getting the U.S. involved in another war, this time with Iran, especially as the 2012 president election is fast approaching,” he said, adding that it was “a total and complete misreading of current U.S. foreign policy” to suggest that the Obama is looking for a pretext to wage war against Iran.

“Unfortunately, the intensification of hostilities between the U.S. and Iran over this assassination plot is bad news for the struggle for democracy in Iran,” the scholar stated. “Those voices that are in favor of war and conflict will now be on the ascendency in both Iran and the United States.”

Hashemi went on to add that the absence of “democracy and political accountability within Iran” did little to ease the current crisis between Iran and the US. “If there were a genuine democracy in Iran, Iran’s various security forces would be under civilian control and their actions could be scrutinized by the public. Opposition parties could hold the government accountable for their actions.”

Commenting on the role of Iran’s reform movement in the current stalemate in Iran-US relations, Hashemi said that the Green Movement could “successfully argue that the existing authorities in Iran have failed the Iranian people yet again.”

“It is the people of Iran who will pay a huge price in terms of their standard of living as the entire world is now mobilized against Iran with new economic sanctions,” he concluded.

The full transcript of the Interview with Nader Hashemi:

GVF: How serious are the allegations put forth by the US against Iran? Will this serve as a significant turning point in relations between Tehran and Washington?

NH: Like most people, I originally reacted with shock and disbelief at this story. After reading extensively on the topic for the past few days, I believe that the most probable and likely scenario is that elements within the Quds force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) were indeed planning an operation to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington D.C. The fact that Ali Akbar Salehi, Iran’s Foreign Minister, is saying today that “Iran is ready to study the case patiently” and is “urging Washington to present any existing documents on the issue” suggests that even authorities in Iran are open to the possibility that someone on their side was involved in this plot.

There are two big unknowns, however: 1) did the senior leaders of the IRGC know about this operation and 2) did the senior leaders of the Iranian regime – Ali Khamenei in particular – know of this plan and approve it?

There are several immediate and long term consequences that flow from this event. First, Iran will come under increasing economic and diplomatic pressure from around the world. Second, any possible dialogue between the U.S. and Iran about their outstanding differences leading to a restoration of diplomatic relations will not take place until there is either regime change in Iran or a new government elected in the U.S. Third, hardliners in both the U.S. and Iran will be strengthened and the voices of moderation will be weakened. Finally, within the Middle East, Saudi Arabia and the ruling regimes in the Persian Gulf can now claim a major propaganda victory by the telling the world – “I told you so”  (i.e. the Iranian regime is a destructive and diabolical force for regional peace and stability). Israel and its supporters in the U.S. also benefit from this event as they now can also claim they too were right all along about the nature of the “Iranian threat” to the world.

GVF: Many skeptics have cast doubt over the alleged “assignation plot.” How authentic and solid are the accusations against Iran?

NH: My reasons for believing that someone inside Iran – most likely a rogue element within the IRGC – was planning to assassinate the Saudi ambassador are as follows.

1) Iran-Saudi relations have been steadily deteriorating for several years. The key event was the overthrow of Saddam in 2003 and the expansion of Iranian influence inside Iraq. The Saudis and their allies in the region are paranoid about Iran. While in public both countries are cordial and diplomatic in their statements, behind the scenes the Saudi leadership speaks with a very different voice about Iran.

2) Recall the Wikileaks documents. The initial documents that appeared revealed that for many years Saudi Arabia and its allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have been urging the U.S. to attack Iran.  In one important cable dated April 20, 2008, Adel al-Jubeir, the current Saudi Ambassador to the United States, is quoted as encouraging the Americans to attack Iran by “cutting off the head of the snake.”

3) Also recall how the Iranian regime tried to explain the rise of the Green Movement after the stolen presidential election of 2009. The regime made the bogus claim that this was a foreign plot. Some of the people reading this interview might remember that leading clerical hardliners such as Ayatollahs Mohammad Taqi Mesbah Yazdi and Ahmad Jannati, backed by the Minister of Intelligence, Heydar Moslehi, announced that the U.S. via the Saudis had given the Green Movement one billion dollars to topple the Islamic Republic with a promise of 50 billion more from the Saudis in the future. While most people in Iran laughed at these claims, it is entirely possible that elements of the IRGC believed them to be true. This explains another possible motive for why Iran might want to target Saudi Arabia. They erroneously believe that Saudi Arabia is behind the rise of the Green Movement!

4) Let us take history into account as well. Iran has a proven track record of targeted assassination and bombings, both abroad and within the country. In 1991, we have the killing of Shahpour Bakhtiar in Paris, in 1992 there is the Mykonos restaurant assassinations in Berlin, in 1994 there is the bombing of the Jewish Community Center in Buenos Aires and during the late 1990s we have the serial killings of Iranian intellectuals within Iran, the most famous case being the murder of Daryoush Foruhar and his wife in 1998, an event that even Khamenei had to acknowledge was undertaken by agents of Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence. I would also add that in 2009 the Iranian regime did in fact send an assassin to kill a critic of the Islamic Republic in the United States. The recent CNN investigation of this incident in Glendora, California makes this very clear.  Given this history, we cannot doubt the capacity of the Iranian regime to engage in foreign assassination.

5) I would also add the Iranian regime is extremely upset at the Saudi government for its invasion of Bahrain and with its strong support for the Syrian opposition to Bashar al Assad. If Assad is toppled, it would be a major setback for Iranian influence in the region because it would deeply affect the status of Hezbollah in Lebanon.

GVF: Some would draw parallels between the terror-related charges against Iran and US policy in the run-up to the Iraq war. How accurate do you consider this assessment and how realistic do you consider the prospect of a retaliatory US military strike against Iran?

NH: If the Bush Administration and the neo-cons were still in power I would be very worried that the U.S. government was looking for an excuse to attack Iran by manipulating evidence against Iran. We all remember the lies that were told in the lead-up the invasion of Iraq in 2003. But I would point out that the political situation inside the United States has drastically changed in terms of foreign wars. The projection of US military force abroad is now deeply unpopular among the American public who are today are focused on the problems of their economy. Moreover, the Obama Administration has no interest in getting the U.S. involved in another war, this time with Iran, especially as the 2012 president election is fast approaching. They have done everything possible to avoid pressure from the Republicans and the pro-Israel lobby on this point. To suggest that Obama is actually looking for an excuse to start a war with Iran in my view is a total and complete misreading of current U.S. foreign policy. So I dismiss these claims categorically despite the memory that is still fresh in our minds with regards to the Bush Administration and Iraq.

GVF: Assuming that Iran is proven to be guilty of planning the plot, how could it possibly hope to benefit from carrying out such a attack?

NH: As I suggested in my answer to question two, there is a mini-Cold War taking place between Iran and Saudi Arabia in the Middle East. The Saudis have been silently pushing America to attack Iran and they have been actively involved in Bahrain, Iraq, Lebanon and now Syria in opposing Iranian interests and forces that are loyal to or sympathetic with Iran. The figure of Adel al-Jubeir himself has been at the forefront of this effort (see the Wikileaks documents). Moreover, the Iranian regime seems to believe that the Saudis have been trying to topple the Islamic Republic by financing the Green Movement. Iran’s Minister of Intelligence, a close ally of Supreme Leader Khamenei has publicly stated as much. Thus, for all of these reasons, assassinating the Saudi Ambassador is a possible Iranian response as it sends a message to Saudi Arabia and is an act of revenge against a hostile state. It is entirely possible that elements of the IRGC/Quds force, who are known to be very ideological, believe that they are advancing Iranian interests by engaging in such a plot.

GVF: How do you think current standoff between Iran and the US is expected to have an impact on the demands of the opposition Green Movement?

NH: Unfortunately, the intensification of hostilities between the U.S. and Iran over this assassination plot is bad news for the struggle for democracy in Iran. Those voices that are in favor of war and conflict will now be on the ascendency in both Iran and the United States.  As a general rule in political science, one of the pre-conditions for democracy is political stability and the absence of war. During times of war and under threat of military strikes, anti-democratic forces rise to the top and dominate the public debate. But there is a case to be made that it is precisely because of the absence of democracy and political accountability within Iran that we are facing this crisis.

If there were a genuine democracy in Iran, Iran’s various security forces would be under civilian control and their actions could be scrutinized by the public. Opposition parties could hold the government accountable for their actions. In a democratic context, if a rogue element within the IRGC was planning to assassinate the Saudi ambassador on US soil, one would immediately hold accountable leaders of the IRGC for creating this international incident and damaging Iran’s national interests. In short, they would be accountable for any steps they undertook to determine Iranian foreign policy without proper oversight.

It is precisely because of the absence of democracy in Iran that we have secrecy and official denials versus transparency and accountability. In this sense, the Green Movement can successfully argue that the existing authorities in Iran have failed the Iranian people yet again. Looking ahead, it is the people of Iran who will pay a huge price in terms of their standard of living as the entire world is now mobilized against Iran with new economic sanctions.

Dr. Nader Hashemi is an Assistant Professor of Middle East and Islamic Politics at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver.

GVF is The Green Voice of Freedom

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