Thursday, October 29, 2009

Target Russia

"And that's how you crush your opponents!"

Interesting commentary found on

Target Russia
The end of "Death to America"?
by R Tousi / 28-Oct-2009

"The Russians are microwaving our brains." The comment of my corner-shopkeeper in Tehran reflects a widely-held view about the state's use of powerful jamming signals to block foreign media. The blocking of key communication links has played a big part in the violent crackdown that followed Iran's election of 12 June 2009. The possible health risks of these newly installed devices have even been raised inside Iran's majlis (parliament); Zohreh Elahian, a member of the national-security and foreign-policy committee, responded to reporters' questions about a possible increase in miscarriages by promising that the figures would be examined.

The fact that the state's jamming devices are made in Russia adds a nationalist tinge to popular suspicions, and explains my shopkeeper's pithy remark. Our 70-something neighbour goes further: she believes that the "Russian waves" will soon kill her off, and blames them too for the demise of the capital's sparrows (whose suffocation is rather the work of Tehran's smog over the years).

It's hard to say when and how such the "Russian" twist to this story began. Yet suddenly it feels as if the conspiracy tales that are such a familiar part of Iranian life end with the Russians - not, this time, the base Americans or wily British - as the main culprits.

The target
Iran has over the centuries had at best an uneasy relationship with its great neighbour to the north. The role of imperial Russia (helped by always-nefarious Britain) in crushing the hopes of democracy raised by the tumultuous constitutional revolution of 1906-09 is burned into national memory. The order of the Russian commander Vladimir Liakhov to shell the majlis did more than kill a number of prominent MPs and writers; it created wounds that Iranians feel can still be scratched a century later.

In the west, the equivalent struggles and their leading figures tend to be consigned to history books. But for Iranians, they represent unfinished business. For example, the generals Sattar Khan and Bagher Khan, who in 1906 heroically resisted the bloody Tsarist occupation of northwest Iran are depicted today in protest-posters wearing green - the campaign colours of Mir-Hossein Moussavi, whom many Iranians believe was the true winner of the presidential election.

Such portraits are at times palm-sized, discreetly displayed by taxi- or bus-drivers and even posted through doors. Iranians on an unfinished political journey find Sattar Khan and Bagher Khan's defence of Iran's parliamentary movement an inspiration, and find many contemporary echoes in the suffering of those times (famine as well as brutal repression). The infamous hanging of the imam of Tabriz in the centre of the northwest city on the very day of ashura (December 1911) - described at the time by an English writer as akin to "hanging the archbishop of Canterbury on Good Friday" - is another potent symbol that reverberates to this day.

The legacy of 1906 was that widespread anti-Russian sentiments made Iran inhospitable to Russian strategic advances for decades. In the context of an Iranian state not yet strong enough to chart a fully independent course, this helped enable the United States to make the country a pivot of its anti-communist bloc during the cold war. But the US's orchestration of the 1953 coup that overthrew the democratically elected government of Mohammad Mossadeq sowed the seeds of what became enduring anti-Americanism in Iran, and across the middle east.

But it is Russia that has emerged as a prime foreign target of current opposition criticism. The other reformist presidential candidate, Mehdi Karroubi, called the election an "absolute coup d'etat" and has written pointedly of the role of Iran's "northern neighbour" in the regime's crackdown. Russia's role in training Iran's riot-police has also provoked street-protestors into chanting "death to Russia".

The same slogan was heard on 23 October during Karroubi's surprise visit to Tehran's annual press fair, where he was acclaimed by an overwhelmingly supportive crowd. The Siasat Rooz daily newspaper's report of the incident also reveals the way that national resentments find an outlet where they can. It seems that a Russian consular employee called Mikhail Gustov deserted the national stand, leaving it unmanned for the day, and as he fled was told by a "bystander" that such a response is to be expected "when the Russian government receives enough money for several reactors and is yet to deliver a single one". The reference to the prolonged construction of the Bushehr light- water nuclear reactor, due for completion by the Russians in 2001, echoes the view of many Iranians that the project is part of a protection-racket binding a weak and isolated national leadership to an unreliable foreign partner.

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1 comment:

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