Thursday, August 31, 2006

An Iran Perspective

I asked a friend to write this. I've mentioned her before. She's been living in Iraq, Turkey, Europe, and Thailand the last three years, and she grew up with direct connections in Iran. She's also got a good grounding in history and economics. We tend to agree on most things political, but she usually has angles and perspectives I don't. So here's what she sent, raw copy, in an e-mail during a brief stop home in Alabama.

For the moment, Iran seems to be the most serious problem child of the civilized world. Other places might be worse, Somalia for instance, but there and other places lack the "N" word in their current problems, with the exception of N. Korea. North Korea of course, is presumed to be nuclear now. But in a way the world is used to their antics and it is presumed that its mighty neighbor China has come too far in the eyes of the world to let its little upstart brother blacken its rising reputation by starting a nuclear war.

Venezuela could be a problem, of course, especially when paling around with the likes of Cuba and Iran, as could Syria or Taliban hiding in Pakistan. Ethnic troubles exist in India and in parts of southeast Asia that few westerners can really get a handle on, though in truth, few even care unless they're told that they're supposed to.

For the media, all of these sources of news have managed to bundle themselves together into some sort of huge anti-American tidal wave that is supposed to sweep all of us off of our feet. Toss in a fair chunk of Europe's natural distaste for the US in general, and we've supposedly got a full blown rejection of everything about America and those who live here, from our heads to our feet.

To US apologists, this is all we need to know in order to complete our understanding of the world and our position in it. But to those of us who have spent years in locations where the hatred of the US seems to be the worst, it's not the whole story at all.

Part of the problem is a simple matter of the true size and reach of American power and influence. We're not just nation-wide, we're world-wide, and at high volume. American businesses, investments, trade products, and media reach every part of the world imaginable, and influence similar foreign businesses and the social structures they subsequently create.

Foreign women who catch glimpses of American women in pictures or articles or on TV stop and actually think about the kind of freedoms required to emulate the women they see. Men who see or read of the trappings of power and luxury that are so deeply celebrated in our media gain desires for similar things and wonder how they might gain those things for themselves. There is an obvious lust we create on other parts of the planets, but the urges created aren't so easily satisfied.

Gaining the liberties, powers, and fantastic wealth is a far more frustrating task than simply dreaming about it. It is difficult even for Americans to define exactly why our nation has prospered to the extent it has while others have failed. We like to say the cause lies within our system of government and the freedom it allows individuals to achieve all they can be. But truly, this alone is not America.

America's government allows for the spirit of the people themselves to steer their country towards a multitud of simultaneous results, all of which can combine at any one moment to present itself to us and the rest of the world in the form of "America" as if it were a finished a finished product. Most of the time even we aren't sure of what we are unless the media tells us and we happen to believe it. SO how can the rest of the world ever hope to emulate us in the same way? Where's the path? What's the pattern to follow? How in the hell did you get to be like you are, and how can we be like you?

And if the people of those nations truly could find a path, would they really want to? Yes, and no. In today's world there is one benchmark, the USA. It is only normal for Thailand, or Spain or Brazil or even Iran to want to reach the point where they could truly claim to be similar to, if not the same as, the US.

Ask any worldwide investor and they will tell you that there is no country in the world with an advancing economy that has not allowed itself to at least partially privatise its economic infrastructure in order to allow individual initiative to flower and grow. This is true of every hot investment zone on the planet, and it is what has allowed a host of different countries to either inch or leap foward in their attempts to catch up with the economy and standard of living they can so easily observe in the US. All are based upon American and western style economic freedoms. Nothing else even comes close in terms of returns and sustainability.

Iran is no exception. That nation's history may as well be a black hole to most Americans, who assume that it was little more than a military dictatorship that fell into the hands of a religious dictatorship. In some respect they are right. But this assumption alone completely strips the Persians of a impressive heritage and of their present day accomplishments.

Ancient Iran was the source of a religion older than Buddhism, Islam, Christianity or even Judaism. That religion was quite probably the source of many of the social laws that we in the west typically credit to the ten commandments. When Islam burned and hacked its way through that religous society, death was the norm, but conversion was also part of the package. And because of this, traces of the older religion managed to influence the new society that remained, and they still do.

Within Iran, there is a sense of "fairness" for lack of a better term, that underlies the thick blanket of Islam. Though most western scholars ignore it and western media is completely unaware of it, the instinctive understanding of the rights of others and the appreciation of the value of other people is fully alive within the souls of most Iranians. And slowly, decade by decade through centuries, they have been hacking their way out of the bonds that hold them even while respecting the values of Islam they have come to love. That process hasn't been easy.

Iran has been a "one step forward- two steps back" region for centuries. Rights under Islam have been fought for and lost on several occasions, particularly for women. Few in the west would ever believe that at one point before the 1979 revolution the wearing of the veil was literally outlawed, and condemned as demeaning towards women. Even fewer would believe that women were a driving force behind the revolution, believing that it would bring greater freedoms, less segregation, and more political expression. Instead of achieving those gains, the revolution brought in progressive waves of suppression, and even resulted in the murderous execution of the first elected female political minister in the history of Iran.

Iran is not a society of bigoted religious pinheads, though they are certainly governed by them. The average Iranian is far more worried about greater political freedom, better social services, increasing economic and educational opportunities, and increasing social freedoms than they are about funding some religous war a thousand miles away. The average Iranian could care less about the Jews in Israel, or what fight the Arabs have gotten themselves into today. And though most Iranian Muslims certainly wish the best for their Muslim Arab brothers, they are not appreciative of their government's staged attempts to show war-like unity with Hezbollah on TV sets across the globe.

At the same time, the hard-line Islamic government has been forced to look at US models of economic development and slowly adopt them. Government businesses are being privatised via direct sales or through the more recently established stock market. Government funds are being channeled into targeted markets to encourage a more diverse economic base not directly associated with oil production.

Nuclear power is a part of this stratagy. When the foolish remarks pouring from the Iranian president are pushed aside and the economic development of Iran is examined instead, nuclear power suddenly becomes not only practical, but actually vital to the future development of Iran. Under the economic microscope, Iran is indeed the second largest oil producer in the world behind Saudia Arabia. But it rests on only ten percent of the world's oil reserves. Simply stated, they are depleteing their reserve and their largest source of national revenues at a rate exceeding any other nation in the world, including the US.

Considering the poor quality and quantities of obtainable coal available, and that at present, Iran's electrical power sources are all oil fired, Iran's future options to obtain the power required for long term development are extremely limited. Iran, even more than the US or many other nations that presently operate nuclear power plants, actually needs to develop nuclear power if they are to survive as a developed nation. But that brings us back to their present leadership, the USA, and what the nasty cultural and potentially miltary stand-off really means.

How can we trust a nation with a government led by apparent religious idiots? In fact, why would they ever believe we would? How could a nation such as the US with such a thorough understanding of the power and dangers of nuclear power ever be expected to accept a nation led by religious zealots gaining nuclear power? And why would the leadership of Iran ever expect us to?

You said it best. "Crazy like a fox." [This was from a private chat - ed.] If there were ever a time to stand up, play the smoke and mirrors game, and screw with the biggest kid on the block, it would be now. For the moment, the whole world is absolutely sure that every drop of oil in the world is about to be sucked out of the earth and burned in a big old US-made SUV. The argument over the ratio of US to worldwide oil consumption has been in every magazine, newspaper and TV news show repeatedly, all without balancing it against US productivity, research or even trade geography.

It's been a great angle for Bush-haters to use when claiming the war in Iraq, and even Afghanistan, was really just about oil. Convenient as that argument has been for them politically, it has been even more convenient for oil producing nations and oil companies themselves. Both now find themselves with the world at their feet, and the smart ones are taking advantage of it while they can. And Iran, as you mention, just might be one of the smart ones.

Iran can threaten with its oil because, well, it can. In true economic terms as well as our media-induced public mindset, Iran has us in its oily grip. And because part of our public and media have focused so heavily on defeat and gloom in our military efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, US and world perception of our capabilities is at an all-time low. N. Korea has stumbled us through yet another useless display of military nothingness. Our allies have been either crumbling or capitulating altogether. And even Israel, after wiping half of Lebanon off the map, has been portrayed as a bumbling failure, while Syria and Iran have been elevated to the rank of mini-superpowers headed by infallible geniuses.

What better time to spite the US? What better time to declare yourself to be the next rising star? What better time to throw yourself into the spotlight and proclaim yourself to be a respectable and influential player in the worldwide arena? Looks like the right time to me, and in the media it looks like a winner.

But the truth on paper is a little different. Iran's government is a pathetically wobbly thing. It's not particularly popular despite its claims, and only through extensive concessions to a public that shares few of its views has it been able to manipulate Iran's "democratic" system sufficiently enough to remain in power without suffering a nasty coup.

1979 might have been a bad year for the Shah and the USA, but even as it thrust Islamic fundamentalism into a position to take absolute power, it also demonstrated the extent Iranians can be willing to take when they are fed up with their government. 1979 rings just as powerfully in the ears of Iran's Islamic clerics as it does to Americans old enough to remember, but for entirely different reasons.

Economically, while Iran has begun the process of transforming its economic system to one similar in structure to the west, oil still represents a staggering 96.2% of it's total export product. Few other developing nations could ever survive with such lack of diversity. Take away the oil, and you take Iran down into the depths of total economic, governmental, and social disaster.

Iran treads a fine line now. Its people want more freedom, more power in their political system, more opportunties and protections. Hard-line Islam is at odds with that, but the very future of Iran depends on it, and they know it. Not unlike the communist heads of state in China, Iran's religious leaders are struggling with gut-wrenching difficulties while attempting to preserve their power in a nation that really doesn't need or even want them.

The US treads a similar line. At present several growing nations are jockying for positions in a changing economic global climate. As threatening as Islam is to the western world, western style economics and the social changes they tend to bring are just as threatening to old school Islamics.

There is a commercial where I live in Thailand that provides a fair, if not perfect example. In the commercial an old woman, a young lady, and a young man are all at prayer in typical Thai fashion, feet bare and placed below themselves or to the side, facing away from the Buddha. Each hold incense in their pressed-together palms, and all are naturally devout, eyes closed in their prayers. That is, except one. From his vantage point somewhat to the rear of the younger girl, the boy peeks his eyes. She's got on some Levi's brand low rise jeans, and a bare strip of skin, minor by US standards, presents itself. His heart wants to concentrate on prayers to the Buddha, but his eyes want to stare at that tiny bit of flesh that piety would forbid.

This is what the religious leadership of Iran and so many other Islamic states fear. Tiny encroachments of western society on the theologic monopoly states they have created. As surely as they fight with the only real weapon they have, mortal terror, the west nips and bites away at them in fractional portions almost impossible to grasp or control. Indeed, when they do recognize it and attempt to control it, the effect on their societies is nothing short of seeing modern western man hurled back to the stone age. And the effect on the societies is every bit as economically damaging as it is socially.

We are not battling Islam itself within Iran. No matter how broken or socially destructive the religion can be in its manifestations, the vast majority of Muslims can practice their religion without the slightest urge to destroy their fellow man unless they are compelled to do so by their leadership. And the people who hold that leadership are the only ones who stand to gain by doing so.

It is because of these facts that the US must tread a very treacherous path with Iran, and a far stronger reason why the present administration has taken a softer approach than some in the US would prefer, or the media could ever hope to understand.

The US could take Iran out of the game very simply, should it choose to do so. Even with so much of our military involved in the religious wars of Iraq and Afghanistan, we still retain the ability to destroy the majority of Iran's military capability without ever putting a single boot on the ground, and the economic force that drives it. Again, to emphasize, take away Iran's ability to export oil, and you take away Iran's ability to fund any sort of war-making machine.

Could the US survive the loss of oil? Of course. The immediate effect would be a huge upheaval in gasoline prices and a host of threats and condemnations from the world community at large. But in due course, other oil producing nations would suddenly realize additional wealth and opportunites for economic expansion. These would include the Arab states of course, but also others such as Venezuela, Russia, those in the southeastern Asian group, and even the USA. In the long run, the balance of the economy would simply adapt and even progress in certain areas, as the lower supply of oil would increase the world's push towards cleaner technologies.

So who's actually in the weakest position? Is it the nation whose leadership is desperately trying to drum up support for its repressive brand of faith? Or is it the nation whose brand of success and accomplishment continues to be the model by which every successful economy on the planet eventually becomes patterned after?

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