Thursday, October 13, 2005

Propaganda and Reality

Rooz Online:

by Massoud Behnoud

In closed political societies one of the major problems in governance is that when a public policy is launched as the central public goal, its executioners become so completely sold by it that they shut their ears to other possibilities and views while others repeat the goals so much that the goal becomes almost divine and sacrosanct so that any criticism over it is viewed as a negation or an attack on the national interest of that society.

There are many such examples in Iran’s contemporary history. Here are a few.

Towards the end of Reza Shah’s rule some 64 years ago, no one dared to repeat what the French commander at the Officers College had told the Shah. To the Shah’s question as to how long the Iranian military could withstand a hypothetical Allied attack, the French commander is reported to have replied, “a few minutes.” During Mohammad Reza Shah’s rule in the 1970s no one dared to question the rapid pace of reforms that he had instituted. And if any one dared to, he would have been subjected to the same fate of Dr Amini (former Prime Minister who was permanently removed from power), Abdollah Entezam (also permanently removed from power), or Reza Rafi. Similarly, when the professionals at the Plan and Budget Organization of Iran called on the officials in 1974 not to spend the newly acquired petrodollars, that were reaped through the sharp increase in oil prices, on foreign imports because that would be inflationary in nature and lead to social discontent, they were condemned to silence. In the same vein, when Ezatollah Sahabi, a prominent politician from Iran’s National Front, and his colleagues called on the official leaders of the country to stop the Iran-Iraq war at an appropriate occasion, they were imprisoned.

Today we have a similar situation. Although I must admit not in such a closed atmosphere that existed in the past. Let’s look at some recent news events.

In a talk with the national television president Ahmadinejad called the recent instability of Iran’s stock market fake, and said “since only 8 percent of the stock market is in the hands of institutions owned by the government or the public sector the recent fluctuations in the market can be corrected to solve the stock problem.”

With that as guidance, last Saturday Kayhan newspaper wrote the following:

The first step to correct the stock market which has alarmed its more than 3 million small investors these days is to find the shortcomings, faults, and violations that have gradually plagued Tehran’s Stock Exchange Organization since two years ago. To accomplish that the government or the Majlis (parliament) need to appoint a team of auditors and domain experts to investigate the management of the Stock Exchange Organization and the decision-makers of the capital market – stock brokers – and the investment companies who have established offshoots.

The reality of the situation, as everyone knows, is that the government that came to power through the promise of radical revolutionary slogans to win the support of a people that is tired of ineffective government, has taken a confrontational and harsh approach towards the world, local managers and investors, and which threatens to arrest and close what it does not like. Everyone is reminded of the revolution and its first days. Once again we hear slogans that please those on the edges of society and the deprived, and equally frighten the local and foreign investors. If this fright is “fake”, as Mr. Ahmadinejad believes, then we must say that so are all the fluctuations of the world stocks and markets. When countries begin to talk in harsh and confrontational terms and there is even the slightest change of conflict between them, markets immediately respond, as this is their nature since capital is frightened first.

Now a government has come to power in Iran which is drawing lines for seasoned managers and established capital and which in its first direct exposure to the world made such a blunder that it united Europe and others against itself. So alarming was this international alignment that it has put the wise men of the state to work. Even if you told the story to a blind man, he would tell you that capital and investors are frightened. Capital starts to flee. Technocrats become fearful. Anyone who can, flees. The most natural consequence of this is that stock transactions halt.

The rights course of action is for the government to return stability to the markets, provide confidence, and prevent the flight of capital and collapse of the market. And just as he implicitly professed his mistake in sending a double-urgent bill to the Parliament to create a two-price system for gasoline, the president must now show through deeds – as slogans will not effect the markets if they do the masses - that the slogans he aired during his campaign were for the purpose of mounting the presidential horse, and that no one now intends to “raise an elephant”, as the Persian saying goes, that is to provide what is impossible to give.

Kayhan’s argument is similar to what has been going on in Iran’s civil aviation industry. We have taken a confrontational position towards the United States and the US has imposed economic sanctions against us. As a result, we do not get our needed spare parts and as a result have to purchase second hand and obsolete Russian aircraft. They crash and kill their passengers. In return, you subpoena the officials of the civil aviation administration announce to the nation that these events happened because the Minister had decorated his office. These lullabies were worked in the past but now the kids have grown up and no longer get scared or fall asleep that easily.

The second news is that last Saturday Ali Larijani [Iran’s chief negotiator at the nuclear talks with Europe] spoke of the history of Iran’s agreement with the United States to build a research nuclear reactor in Tehran. In his words: “About 40 years ago America signed an agreement with Iran to provide it with a nuclear research reactor in Tehran. The reactor was built. The agreement also provided for the supply of its fuel which was paid for by Iran. As you see, today’s claims by the Europeans and the West that Iran does not need nuclear plants is a major contradiction with what they themselves agreed to some 40 years ago.”

This is another of those shaggy dog stories that if told at a diplomatic meeting will only bring laughter to the listeners. The response is simple and goes like this. The previous regime of Iran which could not only get research reactors, but even the facilities and perhaps even the bomb itself, was an ally of the United States, and allied to it to be the gendarme of the Persian Gulf, the owner of the three Persian Gulf islands [of Abu Musa, Greater and Lesser Tomb], the government that forced Saddam Hussain to sign the 1975 agreement and to possess nuclear weapons. When I say he intended to be an ally of the United States I am referring to the memoirs of the Minister of his Court, Assadollah Alam who writes that the Monarch was frequently at pain with Americans and their suggestions, and even used harsh and offensive words when referring to Henry Kissinger or Richard Nixon, who were his friends and allies, let alone when speaking of Kennedy and Johnson, the democrats, in private. In public however, he was flexible with them. He followed this approach to promote his national agenda being a neighbor of the red superpower.

So today what do the policies and achievements of that regime have to do with a regime that calls for the death of America on a daily basis. Iran’s politicians of today, act in exactly the opposite way. In public they denounce the West, while in private they show flexibility to them. If the nuclear industry is as important to Iran as you claim it is, then you must exercise prudence and shorten your slogans to achieve your goals. In the words of a Persian poet, “first get power, and then do what you please.”

I think our politicians must learn that life in the information age is fundamentally different than that during Fatali Shah’s days [reference to the last century]. Among the differences is that you cannot rule through deception, even though experience has shown that you can do it for a while. You must accept that with the increase in population, the number of people who will blindly accept your slogans is diminishing while the number of those who are researching is increasing. You cannot simply look at the former group and ignore the latter.

It makes me happy that the recent elections proved that people can recognize a snake even though it is presented as a friendlier reptile, as the Persian saying goes. If things were otherwise, Ali Larijani would have been our president today!

I would like to end this piece with a news item that hit the Iranian press two days ago. The Islamic Republic News Agency wrote that “US President George Bush issued a warning to states that support terrorism.” The term that was used for “states that support terrorism” is so distorted in its translation, and intentionally, that the reader cannot relate to the countries that the American president is referring. Persian newspapers have used the word “terror” in their Persian versions, but the news agency used a Persian equivalent that is new and unfamiliar, thus hiding the meaning and the message. This translation also reduces the weight of the message. So if Persian readers miss the message of the occupant of the White House, which are the countries that support terrorism, and the meaning of his speech, which implies that his country may be entering a new phase in its war with Iran and Syria, with possible new plans against them, then this type of newscasting by the news agency is nothing more than burying our heads in the snow and pretending that nobody can see us. But it bears its consequences regardless.


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