Working from the Script
Tonight, PBS aired Charlie Rose's annual interview with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. I have seen numerous long form interviews with Ahmadinejad, and each occasion proves interesting and certainly worth the time. Charismatic, engaging, these words don't really describe the Iranian President, yet there is a certain subtle affability in the way that he speaks, although at times it devolves into smug self-assuredness.
However, personality aside, what is fascinating is how Ahmadinejad so closely sticks to the playbook. Leaders in the contemporary Middle East follow a very well choreographed script. The importance of the script cannot be underplayed as it achieves multiple aims simultaneously, but more importantly mixes principled positions with broad obfuscation.
The first vital element is Palestine. Every Middle Eastern leader, whether they be Arab or otherwise, will openly and proudly champion the cause of the Palestinians, though few will lift nary a finger to actually bring about a change in their situation. Yet, this is considered a vital public relations position. The masses in the Middle East expect their leaders to take such a principled stand, and more leaders will campaign on their supposed support for the Palestinian struggle. Ahmadinejad can even go one further, as it is basically common knowledge that Iran provides material support for Hamas. However, it is not vital whether the support is real or imagined. What is important is that the stand is considered a principled and moral one. The Palestinians are indeed suffering underneath the boot of an apartheid regime. The leaders who currently claim to represent the Palestinian people in multilateral and bi-lateral talks were not the same people chosen by the Palestinians to represent them in the last national election. Ahmadinejad, like his Arab counterparts present a principled position; the Palestinian struggle is real and requires an approach that holds Israel to account for its continued violations of international law.
Which brings us to the next element of the script. I speak of course about Israel, however, the script is slightly adapted for the Iranian case. When talking about nuclear inspections and the NPT, Ahmadinejad points to the hypocrisy surrounding Israel. This is a fair and legitimate point. Israel has denied IAEA inspectors access to alleged weapon sites, and has not signed nor does it abide by any provisions of the NPT. This, again, is a perfectly legitimate argument that corresponds with the facts, and is well within the accepted discourse of International opinion. You may not like what Ahmadinejad is saying, but its both true and significant. Of course, the argument most heard in defense of Israel's weapons program is that they are beset on all sides by enemies. Israel has also occupied its "enemies" in varying degrees for over 40 years, and continues to operate what amount to open air prisons in Gaza and the West Bank.
Ahmadinejad goes on to say that this is a case of "politicising" the argument against Iran. Which leads us to the third, the neo-colonial/great game argument. Charlie Rose asks an important question: what is the reason for the conflict between Iran and the United States? I say important because I think generally it is taken for granted that there must be good reasons for it. Ostensibly, the conflict has to do with nuclear proliferation, and maybe support for Hezbollah and Hamas (though I doubt the US is really all that concerned about that. The proxies justify endless and unconditional support for Israel). Ahmadinejad points out, again correctly, that when the US armed and encouraged Saddam Hussein to enter into a war with Iran (one of the bloodiest of the 20th century)there was no question of nuclear weapons, there was no Hamas or Hezbollah, so what then? Here, Ahmadinejad tells Rose "Its a game." In so doing he evokes the spectre of imperialism and neo-colonial adventure. If one is willing to keep an open mind at this point, the possibilities of propaganda, misinformation, Manichean Devils and newspeak create a dizzying realm of disturbing possibilities. And again, reasonable doubt enters the fray. Maybe the Iranian regime isn't so bad after all?
Of course, the problem with an actor stuck on the script is the inability to improvise. When Ahmadinejad suggests that the same international standards should apply to Israel as they do to Iran, he is correct. In actions between states, an essentially anarchic international system depends on uniformity of principle. However, when faced with internal human rights violations, one can no longer point fingers. Though Ahmadinejad tried at least once, when suggesting that Secretary Clinton is obsessed with executions in Iran while ignoring certain friendly countries that still behead the damned with swords in the public square (take that Saudi Arabia!). It is on this point that Ahmadinejad as well as his Arab counterparts, lose their place and stumble. To be sure, he has rehearsed, and the answers come off as smooth as can be, but they ring hollow. The Mohammadi case isn't a great one, the Western press ran too far with it. However, any cursory Google search will return numerous cases of journalists, activists, opposition leaders and organizers silenced -often violently - by the Iranian regime. This, like the plight of the Palestinians, is not in doubt.
What is interesting is that while the script becomes fuzzy for the Middle Eastern leader when it comes to human rights, his very obfuscation is integral to the greater narrative: The proud and brave, principled leader, standing up for the Palestinians against the Zionist regime, trying to bring his people out of the darkness of the imperial machinations of the West's Great Game, while not giving his beloved masses the right to choose for themselves.