Having perused the much-lauded book by David Crist, I can’t help but notice that it is not only light on citations but the material on Iran, and Iran’s nuclear program in particular, is either flat wrong or merely a reinforcement of conventional wisdom, doused in a good bit of innuendo and credulously passed along as fact with barely an acknowledgement of contrary information. This is exacerbated by his status as a “government historian” as well as someone with personal connections and knowledge of the events covered in the book, which when coupled with the dearth of citations makes it hard to tell whether he’s writing a personal memoir, official history, or a dramatic thriller.
I’m of course not in a position to check the accuracy of his characterizations of what people like Rice, Cheney, Abrams, or the generals in Baghdad knew, thought, felt or believed especially about military matters – though apparently he is. However I can cite three examples on the Iran situation which do not match up to the known public record:
First, on page 500 he asserts that Ahmadinejad restarted Iran’s enrichment program. This is one of those oft-repeated claims that has taken on the status of fact through repetition(1), the implication being that ‘that guy’, the ’hardline president’, showed up and ruined it all.
However, Iran had announced the definite decision to end the freeze in a bitter letter to the IAEA on Aug 1st, before Ahmadinejad was sworn-in on Aug 6th. And, the Iranians had repeatedly warned that they planned to do so even before the 2005 elections started (2). In fact on July 18th, Hassan Rowhani, the head of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, wrote a letter to the EU3 specifically informing them that the election had no effect on Iran’s negotiating position, that the process had the continued support of “both the President and the President-elect” as well as other agencies and officials, and warning them that they should not use the opportunity to back out of the negotiations nor make an offer which was intended to be rejected.
It is true the IAEA seals were broken on Aug 10th, just days after Ahmadinejad took office on Aug 6th. The actual resumption of enrichment was delayed because the IAEA had requested time to re-install their monitoring equipment – but it is simply incorrect to say that “Ahmadinejad restarted enrichment” and indeed I wonder if Ahmadinejad even had the legal authority to issue such orders since the nuclear program did not fall under the exclusive control of the President.
Meanwhile, absent from Crist’s account of affairs are the many Iranian compromise proposals that were put forth from 2003-2005, which included placing additional restrictions on the nuclear program well beyond what the NPT or even the Additional Protocol require (including an upper limit on enrichment) – or that all of these offers were summarily rejected due to Sec of State Rice’s insistence that “not a single spinning centrifuge” should exist in Iran. Months before Ahmadinejad’s election, the EU-3 had already agreed with the US to refer Iran’s file to the UNSC should Iran ever restart enrichment, contrary to EU’s promise to recognize Iran’s right to enrichment under the prior Paris Agreement and Saadabad Declaration — another fact that goes unmentioned by Crist. The whole affair is simply stripped of any such context or nuance and instead we’re told that Ahmadinejad came along and restarted enrichment. This is hardly a minor point because the lesson to the Iranians was clear from this whole fiasco for the Khatami administration, in which the enrichment program was set back for 3 years with nothing to show for it.
Furthermore, on the whole plot to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador affair, Crist seems to have already tried and convicted the accused used car salesman/ alleged hitman Arbabsiar. In fact he tells us that Arbabsiar’s handler in the Al-Qods force thought he had to rely on Arbabsiar since he didn’t have any other active operatives in the US, but felt that he could rely on Arbabsiar nontheless since the two were related. How Crist knows what Arbabsiar’s handler knew, felt, or believed — or if the handler is really related to Arbabsiar or even if he exists – is never explained. Crist simply treats this whole assassination plot as established fact, with not even a pretence of any critical analysis or use of hedging language such as “allegedly” or “reportedly”. This, even before Mr Arbabsiar has had his day in court.
Finally, on the Khobar Towers bombing, again Crist seems to pass along the established conventional wisdom without reference to contrary facts or information. He claims that Khatami wrote a letter in response to the allegations by the US in a “typically Persian” fashion, denying Iran’s involvement and yet promising that the situation would not happen again. However, Khatami’s letter is a matter of public record and can been found online(4). Not even a tortured reading of the letter suggests any such implied acknowledgment by Khatami of Iranian involvement at Khobar. While Crist proclaims= that the Iranians had “once again” escaped any consequences for killing Americans, no reference is made to contrary information such as US Defense Sec William Perry’s statements in 2007 that the evidence actually pointed to Al-Qaeda(5).
Other bits of innuendo: He assures us that the Bush administration “had no doubt about the intentions of the nuclear program” because the heavy water reactor under construction at Arak is “similar to” such reactors in other countries that have nuclear weapons programs — never mind that any structural similarity is simply due to the fact that the laws of physics equally apply to Iran as well as other parts of the world, or that Iran’s nuclear program including the reactor at Arak are subject to IAEA monitoring under the terms of Iran’s safeguards agreement (the dispute about the site is precisely when Iran should formally declare the site to the IAEA: before construction starts as required by the enhanced safeguards that Iran voluntarily implemented for a time as a good faith gesture, or 180-days prior to the introduction fissile material as required by the basic safeguards agreement. Nevertheless the Iranians have already allowed the IAEA visits to the construction site. Furthermore, heavy water is itself not “nuclear material” and therefore falls outside of the IAEA’s legal inspection authority.)
I must emphasize that I only perused the book but didn’t read it cover-to-cover, and don’t plan to do so.
(1) For example: “The freeze lasted until August of 2005 when the newly elected President Ahmadinejad restarted the program.” http://www.carnegieendowment.org/static/npp/Jill_Iran_fact_1_Oct_sheet_1.pdf
(2) “Iran to Resume Nuclear Plans, Official States at U.N. Conference” – NY Times, May 4th 2005; “FM Kharrazi: Iran determined resume uranium enrichment activities” AFP Mar 1 2005.
(3) Message from Dr. Rohani to E3/EU Ministers, July 18, 2005 http://www.armscontrol.org/pdf/20050718_Iran_Rowhani_EU3.pdf
(4) Iranian Response to Clinton Letter, undated, early September 1999. http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB318/doc03.pdf
(5) “Perry: U.S. eyed Iran attack after bombing” UPI, June 6 2007 http://www.upi.com/Business_News/Security-Industry/2007/06/06/Perry-US-eyed-Iran-attack-after-bombing/UPI-70451181161509/
- Ron Paul: US obsessed with ‘act of war’ on Iran (alethonews.wordpress.com)
Rarely reported in the West has been the concerted repression of democracy activists on the Arabian Peninsula. Saudi Arabia, the first among equals in the peninsula, has been ruthless against any suggestion of democratic reform. Most recently, the Saudi authorities arrested the Qatif-based cleric Nimr al-Nimr, shooting him in the leg and killing several people during the operation in the village of al-Awwamiyya. Interior Minister Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz said that al-Nimr is “the spreader of sedition” and “a man of dubious scholarship and dubious mental condition, and the issues he raises and speaks about show a deficiency or imbalance of the mind.” In the Kingdom, to champion democracy is a mental illness. Al-Nimr is not alone. The authorities have arrested Ra’if Badawi, editor of Free Saudi Liberals, and activists such as Mohammed al-Shakouri of Qatif, the hotbed of unrest. The Saudis cleverly use blasphemy laws to hit the democracy activists hard. The activists are “those who have gone astray” (al-fi’at al-dhallah), and it is the truncheon that is tasked with bringing them back to their senses.
For a year, the Bahraini authorities have been unrelenting in their crackdown against democracy campaigners. Most recently Nabeel Rajab, the head of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, a veteran of the al-Khalifa prisons, was arrested for an insulting tweet. On June 22, about thirty activists of the al-Wefaq party, led by their leader Sheikh Ali Salman, marched east of Manama with flowers in hand. The police fired tear gas and sound bombs, injuring most of the demonstrators. Things are so bad in Bahrain that the UN Human Rights Council passed a declaration calling on King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa to implement the recommendations of his own appointed Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry. Unsurprisingly, the United States, the United Kingdom and seven European Union states (including Sweden) sat silently and did not endorse the declaration.
Matters have taken a turn for the worse in the United Arab Emirates (of the seven emirates in this union the most famous are Dubai and Abu Dhabi). There the authorities have shown no mercy to al-Islah, the Association of Reform and Social Guidance. Since March of this year, the UAE has arrested at least fifty activists, including the human rights lawyers Mohammed al-Roken and Mohammed Mansoori as well as Khaifa al-Nu`aimi, a young blogger and twitter user. The attack on al-Islah began in December 2011, when the full enthusiasm of the Arab Spring reached the gilded cities. The government promptly arrested its main leaders, and stripped seven of them of their UAE citizenship. The UAE Seven, as they fashioned themselves, released a statement calling for reforms “in the legislative authority so as to prepare the climate for a wholesome parliamentary election.” Nothing of the sort has happened, and indeed the crushing blow to the activists has been swifter and more powerful.
On July 24, University of Sharjah law professor and a former judge, Ahmed Yusuf al-Zaabi, was sentenced to twelve months in prison for fraud. The government alleged that he had impersonated someone else (his passport said he was a judge even as he had been dismissed from the bench for his support of the 2003 call for political reforms). The recent arrests are a piece of this general policy of intolerance for political diversity, and for any call to reform. On August 1, Human Rights Watch’s Joe Stork called upon the US and Britain to “speak out clearly, in public as well as in meetings with UAE officials, about this draconian response to the mildest calls for modest democratic reforms.” There is silence from US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who said, in February 2011, that the US would “support citizens working to make their governments more open, transparent and accountable.” The asterix to that statement said the following: “citizens of the Gulf need not apply.”
Arab Desert Democracy.
John Harris, the architect of Dubai, wrote in a 1971 master plan that the UAE’s political system was a “traditional Arab desert democracy [which] grants the leader ultimate authority” (this is quoted in Ahmed Kanna’s fabulous 2011 book Dubai: The City as Corporation). The term “desert democracy” had become clichéd by the 1970s. In 1967, Time ran a story on Kuwait as the “desert democracy,” a title the magazine reused in 1978 for its story on Saudi Arabia. The idea of “desert democracy” refers to the Gulf monarchies allowance of a majlis, a council, to offer advice to the monarch, at the same time as the oil-rich monarchs pledge to provide transfer payments to the citizens for their good behavior (in 1985 the leader of the illegal Saudi Communist Party said that these payments made the Saudi workers “the favorites of fortune”). If this basic compact is violated by the call for greater democracy, for instance, the monarch is enshrined to crack down. It is almost as if the Gulf Arab monarchs had read their Bernard Lewis, the venerable Princeton professor, whose What Went Wrong? The Clash Between Modernity and Islam in the Middle East (2001) notes that the “Middle Easterners created a democracy without freedom.” All the usual Orientalist props come tumbling in: tribal society, Arab factionalism and so on.
The fog of culture is convenient, but it does blind one to much simpler explanations. The emirs of the Gulf have no interest in sharing power with their people who might ask embarrassing questions about the extravagant living of the royal families off the petro-dollars. No elite willingly submits to democracy, the “most shameless thing in the world,” as Edmund Burke put it. It has been piously hoped since the 1950s that the “next generation” of the Gulf Arabs will be more moderate then their forbearers, that distance from their Bedouin tents will turn them into Liberals. The Saudi King Abdulla is 87, his crown prince Salman is 77 and sick. Their younger descendants have not shown any eagerness to move a reform agenda. The costs would be catastrophic to their family’s control of the wealth. The US government is well aware of this situation. A 1996 State Department cable points out that the “Royals still seem more adept at squandering than accumulating wealth… As long as the royal family views (Saudi Arabia) and its oil wealth as Al Saud Inc., the thousand of princes and princesses will see it as their birthright to receive dividend payments and raid the till.” Reform is a distraction to their plunder.
US Ambassador James Smith wrote to Secretary Clinton in February 2010 that the US-Saudi relationship has “proven durable.” Much the same has been said of the US and European relationship with the rest of the Gulf. Oil is of course key, but it is not the only thing. Political control through the military bases is equally important. Of the many bases, the most significant are the Naval Support Activity Station in Bahrain, the air base at al-Dhafra in the UAE, and the air base at al-Udeid in Qatar. Democracy and other such illusions can be squandered by the West to forge a realistic alliance with the Gulf Arabs who share, as Ambassador Smith put it, “a common view of threats posed by terrorism and extremism [and] the dangers posed by Iran.” One of Iran’s great threats is its attempt to export its style of Islamic democracy, anathema to the Gulf Arab monarchies. The US has lined up behind aristocracy against democracy.
The power of the Gulf sovereigns is increasing, although the sovereigns are less stable. The people have already been through the stages of al-mithaq (the pact) and al-hiwar (the dialogue). Far more is wanted. Night descends. The mukhabarat (political police) and the mutaween (religious police) are on the move. There is gunfire. There are shreaks. There is silence.
Vijay Prashad’s new book, Arab Spring, Libyan Winter , is published by AK Press.