The Tehran-Caracas-Paris express

By Sener Akturk

The past two weeks have brought a storm of surprises. On the morning of April 9, I was talking to a faculty member about my prospective Master’s thesis, which deals with the brief constitutional democratic period in Iran from 1950 to 1953, during Dr. Mohammed Musaddiq’s term in office. Musaddiq was a popularly elected, constitutionally empowered leader who moved on to nationalize the British Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC), which was granted an uncontested monopoly over Iranian oil by the Shah of Iran. As soon as Musaddiq nationalized AIOC, the U.S., U.K., and other Western bloc countries imposed sanctions on Iranian oil in order to force Musaddiq’s government to resign. Musaddiq did not resign, nor did the Iranian people try to overthrow him. He was overthrown by a coup that was engineered by the CIA. We learned the details of this coup from the CIA archives that were recently released to the public. The toppling of Musaddiq’s government in 1953 was the end of democracy in the Islamic Middle East, with the notable exception of Turkey, which nonetheless experienced three similar coups between 1960 and 1980.

I asserted that Musaddiq’s government during that the brief episode of Iranian democracy is representative of the sort of democratic regimes that would emerge in the Middle East and the Third World in general. Popular movements in these regions, which would easily assume power in a democratic context, would tend to nationalize the foreign and multinational corporations, viewing them as part of the colonial or neocolonial history they wish to wipe away.

The faculty member, whose opinion I very much respect, asked me if I “really” think any third world country can nationalize any strategic resource in the year 2002, under the super-liberal and globalized context of international political economy. I said: “Look at what Hugo Chavez is doing in Venezuela. He nationalized the oil industry and his country is the not only the fourth largest oil producer in the world, but also one of the five founding members of OPEC. And what could the major powers of the international system do against this ‘enemy of the system’? Nothing.” Well, last week, someone tried to do that and failed. When I heard news of the coup in Venezuela, I said to myself, “I should have known it beforehand.” It was apparent, especially after Saddam decided to cut the flow of Iraqi oil, that it would be intolerable to let Chavez remain in power in Venezuela. God knows what he would do! The three oil-producing “rogue states” of Iraq, Iran, and Libya on the one side, and the democratically elected, popular “rogue-man” Hugo Chavez on the other, could plunge the world into another oil crisis, as the Arab League did in 1973. The headlines said, “New Venezuela leader installed: Venezuela’s military backed a leading businessman as interim president Friday only hours after President Hugo Chavez was forced to resign…” (Chicago Tribune, April 13)

What was the Bush administration’s response to this? “U.S. offers no regrets over ouster of Chavez—The Bush administration could hardly restrain its glee Friday over the overthrow of President Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, saying that his ouster was the result of a popular uprising against his violent crackdown on protesters… Ari Fleischer said police and military stood by and refused to support the government’s role in such human rights violations…There were not expressed regrets over Chavez’s resignation…The new Venezuelan government announced Friday that it no longer would supply oil to Cuba. Under Chavez, Venezuela had sold Cuba up to 53,000 barrels a day at preferential rates” (Chicago Tribune, April 13). The major U.S. newspapers’ take on the coup attempt in Venezuela was remarkable; none really criticized the Bush administration’s support for a coup that overthrew a democratically elected president in Latin America and signaled the beginning of a new Pinochet-type dictatorship in the 21st century. This tragically demonstrates once again the level at which the editorial slant of the establishment press (The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, etc.) conforms to the completely anti-democratic foreign policy of the Bush administration, which has reached such a high degree that the government and the press can present a fascist-leaning coup as something favorable and “good.” Despite the atrocious history of Latin American military dictators in the last 50 years and the tens of thousands of people killed under those military regimes, the Bush administration and the media cooperated in supporting the recent coup attempt in Venezuela. The form of support varied, of course, sometimes manifest in Condoleeza Rice’s smile, sometimes in an obviously biased representation of causes and consequences in The Chicago Tribune.

As Hugo Chavez returns to power, one wonders how the Bush administration can ever claim legitimacy in its relationships with Venezuela and with Latin America in general. This shameful episode has also proved that even the U.S. cannot impose an unjust government on a country if the internal dynamics of that country do not allow for it. The Venezuelan episode also reminds us the increasing importance of popular opinion and legitimacy in domestic and foreign policy. The Bush-Rumsfeld coalition scored yet another zero on both accounts.

On the other hand, it seems to me that the administration is sacrificing Colin Powell’s career in order to attain some higher objectives that we do not now know. Everyone knows that the Bush administration could stop the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory if they wanted, but they must have a reason not to do it, probably due to some other balance sheets that favor violence over peace in the Middle East. I don’t have a clear idea as to what those balance sheets could be about? Maybe provoking Saddam to strike Israel with his Scuds, which in turn would justify the invasion of Iraq that the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld coalition has been craving for ever since they came to power. But as the violence in the Middle East continues and U.S. foreign policy fails elsewhere, Colin Powell’s popularity will decline, and that will make me sad, since Powell is one of the few decent policy-makers in this administration. As opposed to the war-mongering militarists like Rumsfeld or oil-hungry politicians like Cheney, Powell indeed knows what a war is about and hence I believe him to make better decisions on issues pertaining to war and violence.

In addition, the horrible news from Paris really disappointed me yesterday: the ultra-nationalist, anti-Semitic Le Pen ranked number two in the French primaries. Chirac the conservative and Le Pen the fascist are going to run for president in France, the heart of revolution and the temple of progress! Socialist Jospin lost, making this election the first since 1969 where Socialists couldn’t make it to the presidential run-offs. My personal favorite, Chevenement, ranked number four after Jospin, seriously damaging my high opinion of France as the exceptional Western democracy and the land of Revolution.

It looks like Western democracies are favoring conservatives like Bush and Chirac, or fascist anti-Semites like Le Pen, whereas the Third World democracies are bringing socialist leaning populists like Hugo Chavez and Mohammed Mosaddiq. A funny but understandable situation, isn’t it?