Rouhani dampens Iran's Third World fire
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi
"The government's attempt to raise revolutionary slogans in the world clearly is praiseworthy."
- Iran's Supreme Leader on Mahmud Ahmadinejad, July 15, 2013.
After eight tumultuous years, the end of fiery president Mahmud Ahmadinejad's era and the dawn of a self-described Iranian "government of prudence and moderation" led by President Hassan Rouhani is being seen as an increasingly important development both for Iran and for Third World politics.
There is now a growing hiatus of Third World leadership, in light of Nelson Mandela and Fidel Castro's illness, Hugo Chavez's untimely death, Ahmadinejad's departure from the scene, and the relative absence of strong and bold Third World leaders to challenge Western hegemony on the global stage.
For sure, this is not to discount the existing Third World political
personalities, such as in Africa or South and Central America, who continue to carry the mantle of Third World politics. Case in point, Chavez's replacement, President Nicolas Maduro, has vowed to continue Chavezism in domestic and foreign policies of Venezuela, even though he lacks his predecessor's magnetic appeal.
Similarly, Rouhani, who has already demonstrated foreign policy continuity by expressing solid support for the Syrian government, is likely to reflect the Islamic Republic's anti-global status quo norms and values during his term in office and, therefore, it is an educated guess that continuity rather than discontinuity will have the upper hand in the realm of Rouhani's foreign policy orientation.
Still, because of changes in tone, political style, and focus nested by the Rouhani administration, Iran's role and level of involvement in Third World politics is bound to experience certain jolts, somewhat diminishing compared with Ahmadinejad the populist.
Ahmadinejad championed the cause of the poor and the disenfranchised, particularly during his nine UN visits and dozens upon dozens of foreign tours. As a result, despite his character assassination in the Western media, Ahmadinejad achieved global prominence as a bold and fiery Third World figure who was on a par with Chavez in his stinging criticisms of US power and the importance of Third World solidarity.
Today, who deny the debilitating consequence, for Third World politics, of the near simultaneous departure from the scene of two key Third World leaders who galvanized the voices of the downtrodden worldwide, one departure caused by natural death and the other by the limits of two-term presidency in Iran?
Third world(ist) politics is dead, long live the Third World
It is simply not true that, as a result of globalization and "complex interdependence", the very concept and significance of "Third World" has lost its original impetus.
On the contrary, the growing North-South divide, the endemic poverty of hundreds of millions of people around the world and the intractable power hierarchy led by Western powers all underscore the relevance and resilience of a species of world politics that transcends national boundaries.
Third World politics connect the dots in the form of a specific political orientation associated with the long-standing goals and objectives of the Third World; that is, the quest for a more just and egalitarian world order and a struggle against Western hegemony.
This is, and always has been, a tough battle, given the sway of mainstream Western media and the constant stigmatization of the "Third World other" by propaganda machines commanding the air waves and print media, not to mention international organizations and an array of Western apologists attacking Third Worldist politics as a "passe".
In this context, what was unique about Ahmadinejad and Chavez was their impassioned denunciations of global injustices and their global "street politics". These were not always in tune with the national interests, yet completely and fundamentally entrenched in the Third World ideology, always overshadowing their homegrown and local identities.
With their unswerving commitments to such issues as a new global order and their willingness to take risks for their cause, these leaders followed a noble tradition that continues till this date.
Whatever their shortcomings, in terms of authoritarian style, excess rhetoric, and the absence of a programmatic approach to the global issues and problems, Chavez and Ahmadinejad epitomized a streak of rebellious politics in the world that sought to empower the disaffected and the excluded.
In historical retrospective, however, these leading voices of Third World discontent fulfilled a vital mission along the North-South faultline. Their absence diminishes the collective Third World struggle for unfinished projects: restructuring the world economy, achieving progress in the battle against global poverty and revamping the "global management" of Western-dominated institutions.
Ahmadinejad's mixed legacy
A fair and objective balance sheet of the Ahmadinejad "phenomenon" is still pending. Inside Iran, his wealth of critics point to the crippling sanctions, Iran's isolation, and economic mismanagement, while his defenders focus on Iran's record level of foreign direct investment during his two terms in office, totaling some $24 billion dollars.
There were also Iran's nuclear achievements, and his populist commitment to uplift the masses by devoting a lion's share of government resources to such priorities as food imports, housing, education, and so on.
Taking the viewpoints of both sides into consideration, the overall picture is a mixed one that reflects certain achievements and weaknesses, which must be taken into consideration in tandem by the new Rouhani administration as it seeks to chart a new map of foreign and domestic approach for Iran.
On the negative, there is a widespread feeling in Iran that Ahmadinejad's "noisy rhetoric" on the Holocaust and against Israel cost the country dearly and simply fueled the Iranophobic furnace of Western powers. As a result, Iran's leaders are determined today to avoid such mistakes. Iran can ill-afford them, given the exorbitant price in terms of backlashes in the international community.
Such valid criticisms are often and unfortunately extended to a wholesale rejection of the entire Third Worldist orientation of Ahmadinejad's "populism", particularly by a whole array of liberal and leftist voices in Iran that lament the country's global isolation today, unconvinced that the Non-Aligned Movement's backing of Iran represents an adequate counter-force.
The problem with such criticisms, however, is that they ignore the compelling reality of the post-revolutionary state's global orientation, that requires precisely what Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei praised Ahmadinejad's government for: "raising the revolutionary slogans in the world clearly" - and rather loudly.
Consequently, Iran for the past eight years was able to harvest a good deal of Third World sympathy, at both governmental and popular levels, that served its national interests, and any attempt to discount its importance is tantamount to ignoring a crucial reservoir of global solidarity.
After all, from the outset, the Islamic Revolution was about mass mobilization and devotion to the Third World struggles, its hallmark identity a sure cause of Iran's current role as the head of the Non-Aligned Movement.
Perhaps it was in recognition of these factors that Khamenei quickly appointed Ahmadinejad to the quasi-legislative Expediency Council the moment his tenure in presidential office was over, not to mention Ahmadinejad's ability to garner official support for a new university, thus sealing a partial re-entry into the political scene. An important question is how he can be enlisted for the Third World causes now that Iran has a new president, who has explicitly distanced himself from Ahmadinejad's "loud" style of politics?
By all accounts, this is an important question. The revolutionary identity of the Islamic Republic and its initial elan of a revisionist power on the global scale is on the line, precluding Iran's behavior as a "normal state" rather than as a "movement-state," the latter long ago theorized by this author in a book on Iran's post-Khomeini foreign policy.
The essential "quasi-state" nature of the post-revolutionary order, militating against the unjust global hierarchies and dictating Third World solidarity, has been a hallmark of its identity, in so many ways congealed in the Ahmadinejad "phenomenon" that is now largely relegated to a bygone era.
As Iran reels from foreign pressures, exerted under the guise of a nuclear standoff, there is a powerful impression in Iran that it has paid too high a price, one that no longer tenable and therefore requires serious policy shifts. Again, while there is a grain of truth to this criticism, it is often exaggerated to the point of overlooking the tangible achievements mentioned above.
No doubt Rouhani brings a greater and more sophisticated arsenal of diplomatic skills to tackle Iran's serious problems with the sanctions regime. Yet Rouhani must remain vigilant on the need to maintain Iran's international network of solidarity, which can be weakened if Iran appears as too pro-West and insufficiently committed to Third World causes.
There is a potential risk that in the end, too little will happen on the path of Iran-West rapprochement due to built-in Western hostilities toward Iran, while Iran's strong support in many parts of the developing and Third World softens. That would certainly represent a national security loss which must be avoided at all costs.
The conundrum of how to pursue the Third Worldist agenda with the usual fire and intensity while seeking to lower the temperature with the West, will surely bedevil the new president for the foreseeable future.
The "government of moderation and prudence" is one thing, the reservoir of popular mobilization, at home and abroad, based on fiery speeches and mobilization of passions and sentiments is quite another, and an historical necessity that demands urgent attention by the post-Ahmadinejad leadership in Iran. Bottom line, it is a question of political legitimacy that must be fine-tuned rather than being dispensed with altogether.
Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) . For further biographical details, clickhere. Afrasiabi is author of Iran's Nuclear Program: Debating Facts Versus Fiction (2007), Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 (BookSurge Publishing , October 23, 2008) and Looking for Rights at Harvard. His latest book is UN Management Reform: Selected Articles and Interviews on United Nations CreateSpace (November 12, 2011).
(Copyright 2013 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)