North Africa, West Asia

Iran’s protests: misrepresentation and the silence of western allies

Iranian protesters are stuck in the crossfire between the right-left political spectrum of the West.

Omid Shams
28 January 2020
Vigil for victims of UIA Flight 752 in Tehran.
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Picture by: Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto/PA Images. All rights reserved.

A new wave of popular protests has begun in Iran as the top commander of IRGC admitted that their anti-aircraft missile had brought down the Ukrainian plane. The Iranian government has responded as always with brutal use of force. Live rounds have been shot at the protesters; hundreds were injured, and the families of the victims were threatened not to talk to journalists, or they won’t be getting their loved ones’ bodies. There are countless misunderstandings about what has been happening in Iran over the past few years, and there are major misrepresentations about what has happened in the last few months. What are the processes of silencing and indirect censorship that have led to such misrepresentations?

The main misrepresented fact is that the current protests are not just about the public outrage over the downing of the Ukrainian plane, nor are they distinguishable from the protests of November 2019 or December 2017.

"Our enemy is right here". This slogan was at the heart of the protests that swept across Iran as it had resonated in the streets for the last few years. Yet it has been rarely echoed in the western mainstream media.

On the contrary, the image of Iranians mourning for the death of IRGC top commander, Soleimani, was on the front page of almost every one of them. It is not a hard guess to figure out that under a totalitarian regime such a funeral is nothing but a display of power and therefore, participation is mandatory at least for civil servants, students, and soldiers. Yet it would be surprising to know that even children in primary schools and pre-schoolers had to participate in this “national mourning”.

The most spectacular image of the Middle East produced for the white and western audience must be of either fanaticism or sorrow

The message sent by the mainstream media ignored all this as if there is a consensus over a politics of representation encouraging that the most spectacular image of the Middle East produced for the white and western audience must be of either fanaticism or sorrow. The saddest truth is that the most progressive forces in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) are stuck in the crossfire between the left-right political spectrum of the West.

The western left has been losing constantly over the past decades, yet it still claims the world’s leadership of the progressive forces. On the other hand, some on the left in the MENA have been able to push back the most reactionary forces on earth inch by inch. The post 2011 popular revolutionary politics of the MENA region is either erased entirely or taken hostage by the dominant political forces in the West, whether it be the Democratic vs Republican politics in the US, or the Conservative vs Labour in the UK.

The western left appropriates the rising struggles in the MENA region to win a battle that it has already lost at its own doorsteps.

The right, on the other hand, echoes the voice of Iranians but only in a context within which it could be used as a weapon, which then allows the Islamic Republic to use Iranians as a shield. In this sense, the current assassination of Soleimani, as terrifying butcher of the Syrians as he was, happened to be a God-given gift to the Islamic Republic to distract the public from the shocking mass killing of 1500 protesters in less than two weeks in November 2019.

As in Europe, the left is largely losing the support of the working class and slightly gaining the support of the upper middle class, in the Middle East it has let the people down and sided with the regional dictatorship in the name of anti-imperialism or peace. The white western left tells the people of the MENA to choose the “lesser evil” in order to prevent war, yet it calls upon the people in the West to support them as the most progressive forces. 

This is the most fundamental paradox in the domestic and foreign policy of the western left. The recent protests in Iran have been led by feminists, environmentalists, syndicalists, teachers and workers' unions, i.e. the natural allies of the left. But when it comes to the Middle East, many on the western left has chosen completely different allies: dictatorships, militarists, and totalitarians.

Michael Moore praises a fascistic cult of personality and machoist display of power staged by a militarist and expansionist dictatorship. When the American "alternative media" covers the Iran protests, the interviewees are figures such as Trita Parsi the founder of NIAC who is according to the US district court "not inconsistent with the idea that he was first and foremost an advocate for the regime". 

While the majority of mainstream media were giving the floor to analysts who portrayed the participants of Soleimani’s funeral as the “majority of Iranians”, Masih Alinejad, Iranian journalist and women rights activist, was among the few who gave an alternative account of what was going on. She was swiftly attacked in an article and accused of getting paid by the US government. The piece was written by Eli Clifton who is an expert at the Quincy Institute funded by Koch Foundation and co-founded by Trita Parsi. The piece was shared by the US Rep. Ilhan Omar on twitter while Alinejad's brother is in detention in Iran and such accusations could most certainly expose him to more severe punishment and even torture.

When Corbyn talks about peace in Syria or Iran, you will never hear the names of Assad or Khamenei, as if they have nothing to do with whatever threatens the peace in the region.

As Corbyn switches the topic from the UK to the Middle East, his addressee changes from people to states. Nancy Pelosi disregards the protests trying to bring the focus back to the death of Soleimani.

The progressive forces in the MENA have proved many times that they are committed to the most essential principle of the left, i.e. internationalism

This is how Iranian protests are being used and abused by both sides in the right-left political spectrum of the US and Europe. The result of such a foreign policy for Democrats in the US and the Labour in the UK is the same as that of their domestic policy. It simply pushes the masses into the arms of the more reactionary forces. However, the majority of elite dissidents in Iran are suggesting a different approach. Following the recent protests, the students of Amir Kabir University issued a statement that points at a clear path:

“Today, we are surrounded by ‘evil’ from every quarter.  While the government’s economic policies and political suppression have brought the people to the end of their tether, the shadow of war has also appeared above our heads.  In the midst of constant threats by military powers, today what is lacking in Iran’s political climate is the people’s voice.  Above and beyond anything else, the people demand freedom and equality […]  It is our duty today to direct all our efforts at the totality of the system of suppression, whether in the form of an oppressive government or an imperialist power. “

This clear message of the Iranian students has been echoed in the demands of the Iraqi and Lebanese revolutionaries yet has not been heard by the western elite. The progressive forces in the MENA have proved many times that they are committed to the most essential principle of the left, i.e. internationalism. Despite the neo-orientalist view of many in the western left that, this time, exotifies suppressive regimes in the Global South as anti-imperialists, the progressive forces in the MENA still draw a clear line between themselves and the reactionary forces. But there is a limit to their influence on the society especially when they are betrayed, silenced and left alone by the western intelligentsia who could've been their natural allies. 

1 Omid Shams is an Iranian writer in exile, a member of Danish PEN and law academic at the University of Portsmouth specialising in freedom of expression, modern and indirect methods of censorship.

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