Notes on Iran, Afghanistan, etc.
This article was originally published in the January-February 1980 issue of The Libertarian Forum.
There are many odd, fascinating, and amusing aspects of the Iranian, etc. crisis which have not even been pointed out, much less discussed by the media – despite the grave and newsworthy nature of the crises. The following are some of them – in no particular order.
1. Good and Bad Muslims. We have heard a lot, much sound and fury signifying little, on Islam and its troubles. But if the Muslim militants are terrible “fanatics” in Iran, how come that they are heroic freedom fighters in Afghanistan, not very far away? Is it because the latter are “our” fanatics, while the Iranians are … their own?
2. Not Only Commies are Bad Guys. We were promised, by conservatives and liberals alike, that they too are opposed to American imperialism and expansionism (that is, the sophisticates who admit these bad things exist) but that the ideal of non-interventionism has to be shelved for the duration of the “international Communist conspiracy”, the overwhelming diabolism of which requires this ideal to be overridden. But no one except a few right-wing crazies has maintained that the Ayatollah and his forces are Commies or tools of the Kremlin. So why the high tide of hysteria for intervention and war against Iran? Could it be old-fashioned national chauvinism and American imperial pique?
3.Not Every, American Gets Picked Up In Iran. In the hysteria over the hostages, it has been forgotten that not every American in Iran has been detained by the militants. Many Americans, including TV personnel, have been roaming around Iran, filming demonstrations, and remaining unharmed. Why have the militants focused on U.S. embassy personnel? Is it because the latter are tainted with support for two decades of American intervention on behalf of the hated Shah? The worst that happened to Marvin Kalb, when he leaked the Ghotbzadeh attack on the Ayatollah, was that his broadcast facilities got cut off.
4. Not Every Hostage Generates Hysteria in the U.S. The taking of hostages is a rotten and deplorable act. But how come indignation over hostage-taking is so selective? Nobody raised a peep when left-wing militants held an American woman hostage for two weeks in El Salvador recently. And no one has denounced the Azerbaijaini militants for holding nine emissaries of Khomeini hostage in Tabriz.
5. Not All Private Diplomacy is Bad. Ultraconservative Rep. George Hansen (R. Id.) in a courageous and rather lovable attempt at doing something to free or at least to observe the hostages, flew to Teheran on his own and was the first American to get in to see the hostages; it was Hansen, furthermore, who raised what may well turn out to be the solution to the mess: for the U.S. to investigate its own aid to the Shah as well as the Shah’s tyrannical regime. For his pains, Hansen was denounced by nearly everyone, left, right, and center, for having the gall to engage in “private diplomacy”. And yet when the Rev. William Sloane Coffin and two other clergymen visited the hostages in Teheran, everyone applauded and no one denounced them. Is there a double standard at work?
6. Who Are The Hostages? Confusion has arisen over how many American hostages there are in Teheran. Is it 50? Or less? Yet how can the State Department expect to clear up the confusion unless it names names, and tells us who the hostages are supposed to be. Yet it refuses to do so, darkly hinting that there are good and sufficient reasons. But the State Department agitates for the Iranians to disclose their names. Huh?
7. Who in Hell are the “Students”? We’ve been hearing about the now-famous “students” who have been holding the hostages in the American embassy. Yet who in hell are they? What are their names? We have found out the names of Khomeini’s cabinet, and of the ruling Revolutionary Council; yet the pestiferous students go on in secret. Why does no one even express befuddlement that there are no names? And, furthermore, when and what do they “study”? And where? When do they go to class, take exams, get grades?
8. Who are the Fanatics? When the hostage crisis began, there rose to seemingly great power as No. 2 man in Iran, and its Foreign Minister, the “economist” Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, an engaging young lad who looked like a cross between Charlie Chaplin and the young Trotsky. We were assured, across a spectrum ranging from State Department files to the left-wing Italian interviewer Oriana Fallaci, that Bani-Sadr was a dangerous “fanatic” and extremist, that he was a rabid Pol Potnik who wanted to drive everyone out of Teheran and other cities and into small handicraft villages in the countryside. Very quickly, however, it turned out that Bani-Sadr was a “moderate”, that he wanted to make a face-saving deal to release the hostages,and in a couple of weeks he was out, consigned to media oblivion, a victim of his own sober moderation. He was replaced as Foreign Minister by Propaganda Minister Sadegh Ghotbzadeh, who we were assured in turn was really a fanatic and extremist, having driven out the “moderate” Bani-Sadr. But at present writing it looks as if Ghotbzadch is not much more for this world – at least as a statesman – since he too is a “moderate” who wants to release the hostages. After the driving off of Kurt Waldheim from Teheran (as an old anti-UN person I must admit the act had a certain amount of charm), the startled Ghotbzadeh confided to Marvin Kalb that he thought that the Ayatollah was out of touch with reality and unfit to rule. Wow!
So who in blazes are the extremists? For a while, extremist-watchers were pinning their hopes on the sinister-looking Ayatollah Sadegh Khalkhali, head of the Revolutionary Tribunal and known lovingly in Iran as the “hanging judge”, who had executed hundreds of the Shah’s aides and was in charge of the world-wide execution teams sent abroad to wreak justice upon the ex-ruler. And yet Khalkhali too proved disappointing; for at one point he blurted out that the American hostages were “guests” of Iran and should be treated as such and sent home.
So where are the extremists and who are they, apart from the persistently anonymous “students”?
9. Are The Commies the Fanatics? Nope, much as this will disappoint the conservatives who see Reds under every bed. The Tudeh Party, the Communist party in Iran, while part of the Khomeini coalition, is, as are CP’s everywhere, sober, cautious, and rather bourgeois. They probably consider the “students” bonkers, if they indeed know who they are.
10. Must We Die For Kabul? And now there is trumped-up Afghanistan crisis. This is probably even more bizarre than the Iranian caper. Can we tolerate Soviet expansion into Afghanistan? Well, in the first place, they already did it. To be precise, in April 1978, a pro-Soviet coup installed a pro-Communist regime in Kabul. And nobody made a fuss. And why, indeed, should they? Afghanistan, after all, is right on the Soviet border. Soviet intervention into Afghanistan, deplorable as it is, is old hat – part of its long-standing concern, stretching back to Czarist days, over”spheres of influence” on its borders. No domino has toppled since April, 1978. U.S. intervention into Vietnam, or Afghanistan or Pakistan, is not on our borders, but half the globe away. Secondly, as we have said, there has been a pro-Soviet regime in Kabul since the spring of 1978; the current third dictator has won out over two other Reds. Hafizullah Amin, shot by the Soviets and/or the new Kabral regime, was too Commie for the Russians, that is, he precipitated the Muslim guerrilla revolt by radical land nationalization, angering the peasants and tribesmen. The shrewder and more cautious Russians wanted the Afghan Commies to move more slowly.
So must Americans sweat, be expropriated, fight and maybe die to avenge the more Commie dictator? I hope that the Muslim guerrillas will eventually win, and I think they will – I believe that Afghanistan will wind up as Soviet Russia’s Vietnam. But let, for heaven’s sake, the U.S. stay the hell out; let the Afghans struggle over their own fate. In addition to the high immorality of dragging Americans to pay, die, and kill for Kabul it will strategically ruin the black eye that Russia will receive throughout the world for its own intervention, and will mitigate the anti-imperialist natured of the eventual Afghan guerrilla victory.
In the late 1930′s the French non-interventionists raised the slogan: Pourquoi mourir pour Danzig? (Why die for Danzig?) Let us raise the comparable question: why die for Kabul? Even strategically and geo-politically, Afghanistan has no resoures, no oil, no nuttin’.
11. The Sydney Smith Quote. Upon the Afghan crisis, it is time again to resurrect the wise and marvelous quote from Canon Sydney Smith, the great classical liberal and anti-interventionist in early nineteenth century England. When Lord Grey, the Prime Minister, was moving toward a foreign war, Sydney Smith wrote the following letter to Lady Grey, in 1832: “For God’s sake, do not drag me into another war! I am worn down, and worn out, with crusading and defending Europe, and protecting mankind; I must think a little of myself. I am sorry for the Spaniards – I am sorry for the Greeks – I deplore the fate of the Jews; the people of the Sandwich Islands are groaning under the most detestable tyranny; Baghdad is oppressed, I do not like the present state of the Delta; Tibet is not comfortable. Am I to fight for all these people? The world is bursting with sin and sorrow. Am I to be champion of the Decalogue, and to be eternally raising fleets and armies to make all men good and happy? We have just done saving Europe, and I am afraid the consequence will be, that we shall cut each other’s throats. No war, dear Lady Grey! – No eloquence; but apathy, selfishness, common sense, arithmetic! I beseech you, secure Lord Grey’s swords and pistols, as the housekeeper did Don Quixote’s armour. If there is another war, life will not be worth having.
‘May the vengeance of Heaven’ overtake the Legitimates of Verona! but, in the present state of rent and taxes, they must be left to the vengeance of Heaven. I allow fighting in such a cause to be a luxury, but the business of a prudent, sensible man is to guard against luxury.
"There is no such thing as a just war, or at least, as a wise war.”
12. No, No, Embargoes. The Carter schemes for various boycotts and embargoes on Iran, and now the Soviet Union, are immoral, dangerous, and counterproductive. They are immoral because they coercively prohibit trade whether it be sales of grain or purchases of oil, which are the proper province of each person’s control over his own money and property, and not of the U.S. government. They also prohibit exchanges which are beneficial to us as well as the Bad Guys, as trade always is. To the extent individual Americans go along with the boycott, we are cutting off our noses to spite our face; to the extent they don’t, we are criminally aggressing against their rights of property. Embargoes are counterproductive because they don’t work; one bushel of grain looks like any other bushel; one barrel of crude oil looks like any other (only God can distinguish “Communist” or ” faniatical Muslim” barrels from all others). Therefore, third parties in other nations, heroically seeing opportunities for profit, will inevitably arise to break the boycott and/or embargo: To sell grain to Russia or oil to the U.S. through middlemen and third parties. That is why the embargo against Rhodesia never worked. Finally, embargoes are dangerous because they step up tension in the direction of a devastating world war.
13. Save the Olympics! And now, Carter, in a fit of punishing the Russians over our historic ties with Afghanistan (Hub? Wha?) wants to destroy the Olympics, to boycott it because it is taking place in Moscow. Goddamn it, is there no area of life that can escape the blight of politicization? Isn’t it enough that we are taxed, conscripted, propagandized, killed in war? Can’t we at least enjoy our sports in peace? Olympic committees are private, and they are financed, mainly (though unfortunately not exclusively) privately in the U.S. and the West. Furthermore, the Olympic ideal has always been to keep sports out of politics: to have an international comity of sports and athletes apart from government. It is vital that governments keep their mitts out of the Olympics. It is already unfortunate that South African athletes have been discriminated against in past Olympics because of the policies of their government. Let us not compound this with Carter’s petulant and irrelevant assault upon sports fans throughout the globe. For shame!
14. Who Seized the Grand Mosque? The Khartoum Connection. To get back to the bizarraries of the Middle East. Who seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca? It took a long time to clear out the “fanatics” who took over this most sacred shrine in all of Islam. Were they Shiite Khomeini-ites as the U.S. believed? Commies, Russian agents, as the American right suspected? Agents of the CIA, as Khomeini charged? No one fully knows, but best reports indicate none of the above. Apparently, this was a small “fanatical” Sunni sect, in which a young lad proclaimed himself the Mahdi, the Expected One, the Messiah.
As far as I can piece it out, the Sunni Mahdi can pop up anywhere. The Shiite Mahdi, if such this young lad was, is the Twelfth, or Hidden Imam. The Shiites believe that there were Eleven Imams, each descended in turn from the Prophet Mohammed, his son-in-law Ali, and the latter’s son, the martyr Hussein. After eleven of these descendants, the Twelfth Imam, I believe in the late 11th century, retired to some cave, where he remains hidden – and of, course, alive – until he returns to the panting world as the Mahdi. The Sunnis, on the other hand, don’t hold with this line of descent, and pick Imams spontaneously from mass – or, in a sense, free market, or free society – approval. Except, of course, for the Ottoman Caliphs, but they have been gone for a century or so.
How can the faithful tell when the Mahdi arrives? It is a rum question, indeed, otherwise any schmuck can pop up and call himself the Mahdi. The Shiite Hidden Imam I suppose has certain signs, perhaps cave dirt. But those of who saw that grand old turkey of a movie, Khartoum, know the score. And I’ll say this, we know more about the Mahdi than do faithful readers of the New York Times. Khartoum, with Charlton Heston playing the crazed British nationalist General Gordon, portrays the last great Sunni Mahdi, who popped up in the Sudan in the early 1880′s and killed General Gordon at Khartoum. In the pictures, one great scene, Laurence Olivier, in blackface, rolling his eyes and hamming it up outrageously as the Mahdi, tells Gordon of his significance and his plans for the future: “I am de Mahdi, de Expected One,” he says. “I have de signs: I have de gap in de tooth, I have de mole”, and then another sign which I forget. And then: “I shall enter de mosque at Khartoum, then I shall enter de mosque at Cairo…" "Entering the mosque” was patently a Mahdian euphemism. It didn’t mean simply walking into the mosque as a penitent; it meant entering with thousands of his troops, slaughtering all in his path. He proceeded to outline his path of conquest, up to and including "entering de mosque” at Constantinople. I am surprised the movie didn’t attribute to him plans for world conquest, and that we’d better fight him in Khartoum or else fight him in the streets of New York . At any rate obviously he didn’t make it; in fact, he never got beyond Khartoum.
And just as obviously the current would-be Mahdi didn’t get very far either. But, Mahdi- watchers can always hope.
15. Gut Fears of Islam; the 1930′s Movie Connection. In all the hysteria about Muslim Fanaticism there is a touch of old movie. Perhaps there has been an almost neo-Jungian penetration of deep anti-Muslim symbols and fears into the American psyche. Maybe from seeing too many Gary Cooper-French Foreign Legion – Evil and Crazed Arab pictures. Surely you know what I mean. A dozen heroic French Foreign Legionnaires, led by Gary Cooper and ably seconded by Victor McLaglen, are riding across the trackless wastes of the Sahara Desert. There they are surrounded, at the ruins of some old fort, by hundreds of fanatical, hopped up, kamikaze-type Arabs, who are willing to die for their crazed beliefs; one by one the heroic white men get picked off, until zero or one or two are rescued (depending on whether it is an Optimistic or Pessimistic picture). Usually the Arab charges are led by whirling dervishes and other such sinister madmen.
Come on now, fellow Americans! This is not 1933, and you are not Gary Cooper, and we are not hot and thirsty on the Sahara, surrounded by hundreds of fanatical Arabs/Muslims. We’re home and safe, in our comfy armchairs, drinking beer watching the Super Bowl. And Jung is dead.
16. The Persian Imperium. We have seen a lot about unrest in Iran among the Baluchis, Kurds, Azerbaijanis, et al. But the significance of this unrest has not really penetrated to the media and the American public. It seems pretty clear that Iran is a swollen empire, with the ethnic Persians, in the central core of the country, constituting about half the Iranian population, holding sway over a whole bunch of nationalities on the periphery: The Turkomans in the northeast, the Baluchis in the southeast, Arabs in the southwest, Fars ditto, Kurds in the northwest, and Azerbaijanis in the far northwest. All of these are nations in their own right, and have been oppressed for decades by Persian central control, first under the Shah, and now under Khomeini. One happy result of the Iranian revolution may be to dismember the swollen Persian empire.
How did the empire get this way? How did Persian boundaries extend to include all these minority nationalities? When? Why doesn’t the New York Times tell us?
17. You Can’t Know the Ayatollahs Without a Scorecard. The Iranian crisis has brought to the fore a whole unfamiliar hierarchy of Shiites in Iran, melded in as yet unclear ways into a theocracy over the country. From what we can piece together, here is a tentative reader’s guide to all the hierarchs. In the first place, as we mentioned earlier, no one picks or appoints Ayatollahs or any other hierarch. They are picked from below, by public approval of their learning, wisdom, whatever – in a free market manner. Ayatollahs are selected by the faithful in much the same way as judges would be picked in an anarcho-capitalist society, or were picked under older tribal or common law: those who were considered the ablest, wisest, most learned, etc.
On the lowest level, there is the mullah, the local preacher. There are thousands of mullahs throughout Iran, and these indeed constituted the main organization for the revolution. Ulemas are teaching mullahs, comparable to professors. Above the mullahs are the ayatollahs, of whom there are many dozens throughout Iran. And above them, selected by the same process of veneration by the faithful, are the Grand Ayatollahs, of which there are six in Iran. Khomeini is one of the Grand Ayatollahs. Of the six, two are inactive somewhere in the boonies, and one of the four actives is quite ill. Khomeini has, of course, acquired supreme political leadership, first of the revolution and now of Iran, and hence is considered the Imam. (That is why some? all? of the militant "students” call themselves Followers of the Imam’s Line.) Khomeini is considered, or at least used to be considered , only the second ranking Grand Ayatollah in terms of wisdom and holiness. First ranking was always the Grand Ayatollah Kazem Shariat- Madari (of whom more below). Shariat-Madari was originally the leader of the anti-Shah revolution, but he proved too moderate, staying at home instead of leaving into exile, and willing to give the neo-Shah puppet premier Shahpur Bakhtiar a chance. Hence, allowing Khomeini to seize leadership. Shariat-Madari is now heading an Azerbajaini rebellion against Khomeini because he objects to Khomeini’s new constitution for Iran proclaiming himself Fagbi for life. Faghi is absolute ruler, and I guess could be considered an Imam with political muscle. All clear now?
18. Old Curmudgeons in Iran. For us Old Curmudgeons, there is a particularly lovable aspect to the current Iranian regime. They are, first of all, as Old Curmudgeonly as they come. In fact, if TIME can name the Ayatollah Khomeini Man of the Year, then surely he is even more the Old Curmudgeon of the Decade. (I hasten to add, to cover my flanks in the movement, that the Ayatollah is most emphatically not a Libertarian. But he is definitely and Old curmudgeon extraordinaire. )
But there is a more detailed point to make. For another charming aspect of the Iranian regime is the veneration for age. For one of the reasons that the Grand Ayatollah Shariat-Madari has broken angrily with Khomeini is – in addition to the totalitarian and centralizing nature of the regime – because Shariat-Madari, formerly the mentor of Khomeini, considers Khomeini a young pup of 79. Shariat-Madari, you see, is all of 81. As us Old Curmudgeons get inexorably older, facing an American culture that is slap-happy over youth, the attractions of a reverence for elder Ayatollahs grow greater.
*Writing as "The Old Curmudgeon."