US Intervention in Iran

By Terry Lacey – Jakarta

The Iranian authorities, shocked by the massive popular protests against alleged election malpractices have blocked web sites such as Facebook and Twitter, blocked SMS messages, restricting use of cell phones, restricting the foreign media, and clamping down hard on protesters. (AP. Jakarta Post 23.06.09). The government side will cry foreign intervention. How much will they be right?

In a global electronic world Iranian resistance and NGO networks are active, financed and involved. How much are states involved in backing them? What sort of economic or even criminal interests got involved, and why? These are reasonable questions and not a criticism of those struggling for more freedom.

The Internet represents a new form of foreign intervention in popular protests and uprisings exploited by social groups, foreign exiles and intelligence agencies. 

The State Department did intervene to advise Twitter not to close for maintenance during these events, advantaging Mousavi and the protestors.

The Iranians, and many interested governments will be watching all this with some concern. There is no monopoly on resistance by social networking which could stoke up riots in Paris, London or New York as well as in Tehran or Beijing.

During the election campaign Tehran was divided into two political territories reflecting beneficiaries and losers in the Islamic revolution. 

The new rising middle class are based in the Northern suburbs of Tehran, and similar suburbs in other cities, and have been waiting their chance to protest at what they see as an oppressive and isolationist regime based on the exploitation of a conservative version of Islam, which they no longer want imposed upon them.

The election protest has been their chance to say they not agree, do not feel included and want more social and political freedom. The allegations of election fraud remain unsubstantiated and the elections appear to have been reasonably fair, despite reports of malpractices in 50 districts, but the overall outcome not determined by fraud. (AP. Jakarta Post 24.06.09). There are high clerics and political figures playing hardball on two sides here, not one. 

The conservative traditional Muslim poorer families in the poorer southern suburbs gained benefits from the Islamic revolution via a “seemingly viable mixture of theology and modernity” which ¨has allowed the integration of an extremely large conservative segment of the population into Iranian society.” (Abbas Barzegar, 17.06.09).

Hence the poorer suburbs of Tehran are the base of the Ahmadinejad supporters who have chosen to take on the ideals of the Islamic revolution whilst denouncing Iranian traitors (Hashemi Rafsanjani and his allies) and foreign intervention.

Abbas Barzegar underlines that Iranians have “ had to deal with 30 years of international sanctions aimed at its collapse, an eight year war with Iraq funded by imperial powers, [and backed by Arab neighbors] and continuous US and European support of opposition groups in and out of Iran.” Foreign intervention is understandably stamped on the Iranian national consciousness.

But Steve Weissman writing in Truthout, an independent website, has described the historical background to US intervention in Iran.

During the George Bush presidency ABC News reported the US and Pakistan were backing a separatist Sunni fundamentalist militia from the non-Persian Baluchi region of Iran called Jundallah (Soldiers of God) allegedly funded by Iranian exiles in Europe and the Gulf.

Jundallah recently claimed responsibility for the suicide bombing of a Shiite mosque in Zahedan in May this year killing 25 and injuring up to 125 people. The White House and State Department condemned this attack and Robert Gibbs, Obama’s spokesman, referred to “recent terrorist attacks in Iran”. (

The State Department considered placing Jundallah on the list of terrorist organizations, but this would require proving the group was a threat to the US. (Jason Ditz, Anti-War.Com, 30.05.09).

It was also reported that the Congress had voted up to $400 millions for an Iran destabilization campaign and Seymour Hersch wrote a major investigative piece in the New Yorker (07.07.08) alleging that “The covert activities involve support of the minority Ahwazi Arab and Baluchi groups and other dissident organizations”.

Hersh said some of this support might reach the Mujahideen-e-Khalq (M.E.K) (on the State Department terrorist list) or the Kurdish separatist PJAK.

This funding request to a Democrat-controlled Congress, justified partly by Iran´s alleged nuclear ambitions, came at the same time that a US National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) in December 2007 concluded that Iran had halted work on nuclear weapons in 2003, but was still enriching uranium.

Hersch also alleged links between some dissident groups and narco-trafficking. Iran is steadfastly opposed to narcotics and willing to co-operate to stop heroin.

But Hersh pointed out that President Bush ordered a covert operation focused “on undermining Iran´s nuclear ambitions and trying to undermine the government through regime change”. He said the number of attacks and incidents in Iran rose in 2007 and the first half of 2008, in Iranian press reports.

Hersch also quoted a member of the House Appropriations Committee, who said that even with a Democratic victory in November 2008, “it will take another year before we get the intelligence activities under control.”

But Hersch also confirmed that Senator Obama´s reaction to the Presidential Finding in support of covert operations in Iran was that he only supported direct talks and diplomacy, whereas other Democrats supported covert operations.

The question is whether the US administration has completely dropped the destabilization campaign, or if parts of it are still running.

So there are three problems with US foreign policy formulation and implementation on Iran given the transition from Bush to President Obama:

First, US Foreign Policy is like a mega oil tanker at sea and it takes a big effort and some time to stop it, or to turn it around.

Second, internal interest groups play a big role in US foreign policy which was said to be originally based on three great principles, Ireland for the Irish, Israel for the Jews and Trieste for the Italians.

Since then we have added Africa for the Africans, Cuba for the Cubans and now presumably Iran for the Iranians. Whilst these comments are partly satirical, domestic lobbies can be influential and sometimes more conservative than the State Department, limiting its flexibility.

Third there are still hawks and doves on how to deal with Iran given its backing for Hezbollah and Hamas, its current position on nuclear development and uranium enrichment and the pressures on the US from the Israelis to solve this.

President Obama asked Iran to unclench its fist. Maybe Tehran is not quite sure yet if the US has already done the same.

After the awful events in Tehran the Iranian government is understandably suspicious of the West and not sure if the US will one day let Israel attack its nuclear program. Confidence needs to be rebuilt from two sides.

Nobody in their right mind has an interest in stoking up a civil war in Iran. It may be better for the West and Muslim countries to encourage Iran to bring in reforms to adapt the Islamic revolution to new social realities and allow more freedom.

Because plainly and despite all the problems, most Iranians still support the Islamic revolution, and just voted for it in a democratic election, although it seems they also favor change and more democracy. But in Algeria, Palestine and now Iran the West does not always like democratic election results involving political Islam.

Part of the rise of terrorism in the West is state-backed. We should not be subverting each others societies nor bringing down each others governments. That is the road to anarchy. Unfortunately this is already a two-way street.

Maybe President Obama has to teach Westerners that if the West expects the rest of the world to respect democracy, then the West must respect democratic elections in the rest of the world, including the Arab and Muslim world, and learn to live with elected governments. Global democracy cannot be a one-way street.

Many of you reading this would rather that Mousavi had won, but there is strong evidence Ahmadinejad won. We cannot build our new global democracy based on opportunism, inconsistency and propaganda. We have to be more patient and work step-by-step, respectful of the cultures and political opinions of others.

The excesses and failures of the Iranian Islamic revolution are now destabilizing Iran and the Muslim world. Many who voted for President Ahmadinejad also want reform and dialogue, along with the opposition. Here is an opportunity to repair the damage, and strengthen Iran. Can the Iranian leadership meet this challenge?

– Terry Lacey is a development economist who writes from Jakarta on modernization in the Muslim world, investment and trade relations with the EU and Islamic banking. He contributed this article to

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