Those who criticize American human rights violations are "unpredictable and potentially dangerous"

Irani President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sent a long, polemical letter to George Bush two days ago, the first direct communication between the two governments’ leaders since 1979. Predictably, the Bush administration dismissed the letter because "It isn't addressing the issues that we're dealing with in a concrete way" (Rice) and "it did not answer the main question that the world is asking, and that is, 'When will you get rid of your nuclear program?'" (Bush). The USA isn’t interested in dealing with any communication except one that announces capitulation to American demands.

The media have learned nothing from the Iraq debacle. Reporters immediately adopted the viewpoint of the US government, using polemical language to describe the letter ("screed" was popular, also "rambling", "diatribe"); highlighting those parts of it - condemnations of liberal democracy and Israel - least likely to get a receptive audience in the States; and devoting more space in their articles to American officials dismissing it than to what it had to say. (See The New York Times, The Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, USA Today).

In typical condescension, to the extent the media took the letter seriously it was to gain insight into "their mentality" (The New York Times quoting a high official). ABC News said the letter "provides a fascinating and disturbing look into the mind of one of the world's most unpredictable and potentially dangerous leaders." USA Today took a look into that mind and found "a naive leader whose beliefs stem from resentment and ignorance of the Western world". Sally Buzbee, the AP's Chief of Middle East News concluded that "the Muslim world" remains fixated on "a long list of grievances" from as long as 50 years ago but that if Ahmadinejad "won't budge on the nuclear issue[,] it's going to be nearly impossible for anybody in the West ever really to talk with [him]."

It's interesting to see how the media impose this feeling of otherness on the US government's enemies. If you actually read the letter, you find some hypocrisy, a lot of problematic political philosophy - and a lot of very progressive stands on key issues that the media ignores because the US government doesn't talk about them.

Using the rhetorically powerful device of asking Bush whether Jesus would agree with the policies that Bush has pursued, Ahmadinejad raises the key issues he sees dividing the US and Iran. They include the invasion and occupation of Iraq, the torture of prisoners, Israel's human rights violations and American support for them, American opposition to the Irani nuclear program (which he casts as pursuit of technology rather than pursuit of nuclear weapons), American opposition to democratically elected governments in Palestine and Latin America, the coverup (he claims) of US government involvement in orchestrating 9/11, and the USA spending money on the military when it could be spent to address poverty. He writes:
If billions of dollars spent on security, military campaigns and troop movement were instead spent on investment and assistance for poor countries, promotion of health, combating different diseases, education and improvement of mental and physical fitness, assistance to the victims of natural disasters, creation of employment opportunities and production, development projects and poverty alleviation, establishment of peace, mediation between disputing states, and extinguishing the flames of racial, ethnic and other conflicts, were would the world be today?
He also lists a number of specific abuses committed by the USA against Iran:
the coup d'etat of 1953 and the subsequent toppling of the legal government of the day, opposition to the Islamic revolution, transformation of an Embassy into a headquarters supporting the activities of those opposing the Islamic Republic (many thousands of pages of documents corroborate this claim), support for Saddam in the war waged against Iran, the shooting down of the Iranian passenger plane, freezing the assets of the Iranian nation, increasing threats, anger and displeasure vis-a-vis the scientific and nuclear progress of the Iranian nation...
In every point here, with the sole exception of his implication that the US government was involved in the 9/11 attacks, Ahmadinejad is raising urgent and justified criticisms of the US government. More than a few Americans might agree with these criticisms, if they were ever made aware that Iran was making them. Instead the media and government write off what Iranis actually say as some sort of psychological problem and return to the matter at hand: preserving the monopoly on nuclear weapons in the Middle East for the USA and Israel.

Of course we shouldn't romanticize Ahmadinejad or the Irani government's resistance against American power - as the rest of the letter makes clear, Ahmadinejad is not approaching these issues from anything close to a progressive standpoint. Yet we should also be clear: it is the right of all states to acquire nuclear weapons if an aggressive, nuclear-armed imperialist power is threatening them. The United States, which is itself responsible for much of what's wrong in the Middle East, has no right to make demands on anyone in the region. Problems in the Middle East will persist as long as the many legitimate demands raised by Ahmadinejad continue to be ignored by the US government, media, and public.


Patrick said...

Not a direct response, but I'd be curious in reading a comparative analysis of historical memory in the U.S. versus, say, Iran. I recently listened to a Democracy Now! interview with Stephen Kinzer, whose new book "Overthrow" is focused enough that he's now sound smarter than he used to (meaning that more of what he says actually agrees with me ;), and he remarked that Iranians typically discuss the CIA-orchestrated coup as if it were fairly recent history. Palestinians regard 90 years ago as part of their "present"; Northern Irish Unionist historical memory traces back 500 years.

Yet in this country it's downright painful to remember last week.

Chris said...

well things just happen so much faster over here, what with our technology and all. it not a fair comparison.

but seriously, i was totally disgusted to read a comment by one "expert" analyst to the effect of "this just isn't the kind of letter that a head of state writes."

i'm tired of only reading quotes from rich iranians who oppose the conservative mullahs. i oppose conservative mullahs too (you know, pat robertson) but the coverage is so skewed in that direction that it's impossible to get a real picture of iranian society.

does bush's quote about "when are you gonna stop your nuclear program" mark a shift in policy? now we will tolerate no program at all, not just a program that can be proved to be impossible of creating weapons (such a negative proof in and of it self is likely impossible, of course.) i guess he was probably referring to enrichment?

the challenge for me, when i'm talking to people about this conflict with iran is putting statements like "we should wipe israel off the map" in context.

in one sense, i think you just have to let that statement stand, because anti-semitism is something to take seriously, and shouldn't be apologized for.

on the other hand, i feel like statements like that are rhetorical, and that statement is clearly rhetorical in the sense that iran cannot wipe israel off the map, and couldn't do so, even with a bomb, or at least not without sealing the fate of all life within it's borders.

i guess the problem with explaining this is that the explaination inevitably lacks "concision" and it's hard to maintain credibility with anyone who is skeptical to begin with.

jenny said...

i just read the letter for the first time and i'm really surprised by the coherency/normalness of some of the points it made (aside from some obvious exceptions). i had actually only heard brief descriptions of the fact that it was "rambling." what does he really think he can accomplish with this? jake, it's so true how much the media sucks here.

chris, i think bush's response is hilarious but not a shift in policy. it's the same crap about opposing anything critical of himself and completely disregarding a perfect chance at a meaningful debate of issues.

the point in the letter about science was particularly interesting to me. I had never really thought about the opposition to nuclear development as an opposition to scientific/technical development in general. i disagree, but it's one of those things that just took me by surprise. it's one of those weird arguments that just comes out of nowhere and you have to sort of think about it for a second.

it sounds so silly that a country should express technical progress as its inalienable right. on the other hand, bush hates science, so it shouldn't come as a surprise when he opposes the scientific development in other countries, too.

in conclusion, PLEASE look at the picture on the official iran president's website. amedinajad is sitting at a table diligently writing a letter (i imagine thought bubbles sprouting out of his head and soon his toungue will be sticking out of the side of his mouth from the effort) and bush is in the other corner of the room sitting on a chair and peacefully, respectfully reading the letter. it is amazing.