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Opinon: Sean Penn and the Neocons

14 July 2005

Sean Penn’s visit to Iran has caught the attention of the Iranian American community and many bloggers. My friend "Afshin Molavi wrote about":http://www.opendemocracy.net/blogs/page/Iran/20050610#sean_penn_in_iran Penn’s visit to Iran almost before Penn had a chance to set foot at Mehrabad airport. Afshin expressed concerns that Penn’s visit would further politicize the way the elections and Iran's democracy movement would be spun in the US.

Afshin makes a good point; these days, the messenger is as important as the message. After all, all politics are local, and Penn may very well be tempted to use the elections in Iran to score points against the Bush Administration. Certainly, this is not a problem that only the “Left” in America is responsible for; it is endemic to the polarization of the American political landscape. The “Right” in America is no less involved in using the situation in Iran to score points within the beltway. Just see how every protest in the Middle East is claimed to be inspired by the dethroning of Saddam.

A more pertinent point, however, is the neo-conservative movement’s monopolization of human rights in the American discourse on Iran that Afshin alludes to. Any talk in Washington on human rights in Iran is immediately suspected by many Iranian Americans to be a cover for the neo-con agenda of imposing an Iraqi-style regime change in Iran – aerial bombings, shock and awe, and the promotion of an Iranian Ahmed Chalabi hand-picked by the Pentagon. Sometimes their suspicions are proven true, but many times they’re mistaken.

The problem isn’t necessarily the Iranian Left’s imagined sense of “abandonment,” since that presumes that the neo-cons genuinely are promoting human rights – which hardly is the case. The self-imposed silence of the Left and the mainstream has, however, enabled the neo-cons to “own” the debate on human rights in Iran. Indeed, a greater problem than the few Iranian leftists who have gone from one extreme to another by picking up the neo-con flag – the ideological journey from Trotskyism to Neo-conservatism isn’t that far after all – is the emergence of the “neo-con lite” movement within the Iranian American community and America in general.

This neo-con lite phenomenon, though small at this stage, consists of individuals in the mainstream who have begun to mimic the neo-con rhetoric, arguments, and game plan. These individuals publicly mock and criticize the neo-cons, but unbeknownst to them, their outlook is increasingly becoming neo-conish through the acceptance of the premises of the neo-con perspective.

This indicates how the simplistic neo-con approach to the problems of the Middle East is gaining some small ground within the pro-democracy movement because of – not necessarily the Left’s “abandonment” – but the lack of critical assessment of the neo-con movement as a whole.

The neo-cons’ clever rhetoric claims that they are the only ones standing up for human rights in Iran – as if the Iranian pro-democracy movement was born the day Michael Ledeen decided to turn against the mullahs after having courted them extensively ever since the Iran-Contra scandal. As if those who for years have sought greater access to the Iranian NGO sector through the lifting of US sanctions on Iranian NGOs didn’t support the cause of democracy because their rhetoric wasn’t as clever, though their actions were all the more genuine.

I hope Penn questions the neo-con premises and reports on the courageous efforts of Iranian NGOs and the indigenous quest for democracy in Iran, which preceded the neo-cons’ usage of clever human rights rhetoric and neo-con liters’ belief in that rhetoric. And I hope that Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly also get a chance to report the same – from Tehran.

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