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Durham and their Iran conference controversy 22, February 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Iran, UK.
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At the end of January the School of Government and International Affairs at Durham University, UK (both my department and my University) held a conference attended by relatively hard-line Iranian academics and diplomats. The two keynote speakers pulled out at the last-minute to avoid the controversy kicked up by students angry at the University hosting such an event. Thus, in the words of the conference organiser Dr.Colin Turner it was “monopolised by pro-regime speakers.”

Aside from the notion of giving a detestable regime a platform to discuss their points, Durham’s Iranian students were specifically angry about a few things. First, on the day of the conference Iranian authorities announced the execution of two young men condemned as terrorists. Second, there is a Durham PhD student in Iran who has had his passport taken away preventing him from leaving the country.

Turner, the organiser, defended the conference with rather injudicious gusto.

These same people who denigrate us have absolutely no problem in accepting scholarships from the British government – which has turned the slaughter of innocent teenagers in Iraq and Afghanistan into an art form. Before they accuse us of receiving what they term ‘blood money’ from our Iranian funders, maybe they should look a little more closely at the source of their own funding.

Whilst his intrinsic point may be true about differing sources of funding, by using such crude hyperbole he comes across as something of a partisan zealot.

This issue is certainly difficult. Dialogue is just about always the best thing. Peace, reconciliation and other such positives cannot come about if there is no interaction at all. Yet, in practice, this is obviously distasteful. Talking to the IRA was clearly the best thing to do, for now there is an absence of their terrorism. Setting free IRA prisoners as part of the bargain was also the right thing to do in exchange for peace. Yet, many of these steps can just feel so wrong. Setting free unrepentant killers years or decades early in particular grates profoundly. Notions of ‘the greater good’, I suppose, must take over personal, human emotions at this point. Perhaps this difficulty is as simple as a macro versus a micro point of view; easy to understand on the grand scale, but when they are speaking in your department, it’s more difficult to accept.

The strength of Middle East nationalism as a search for legitimacy 27, February 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Bahrain, Foreign Policies, Iran, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Middle East, Saudi Arabia.
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Since Napoleon raised his army on a diet of nationalistic fervour, flags and anthems, people in the West have been only too aware of the powerful nature of nationalism. This is not to say that it is not powerful elsewhere. However, from a Western perspective, since Western states have – on the whole – been established, bordered and Weshphalian entities for longer than elsewhere in the world, there is, it could be suggested, something of an implicit assumption that nationalism could be ipso facto stronger in the West. In the Middle East, for example, how could the forces of nationalism possibly be that strong, one might think, in such young states (some of which only became independent in 1971) where there is such a manifestly important and pervasive uniting element at the supra-national level in Islam?

Whatever the apparent logic of such a position, it is clearly wrong: nationalism in the Middle East is thoroughly entrenched and all too visible. During the Iraq-Iran war, many on the Iranian side expected that their Shia brethren in the Iraqi army (and the vast majority in the country) might switch sides to the Iranians or at least not fight. Eight years of bitter, attritional and epically costly warfare later and such notions were thoroughly disabused. In a talk given at Durham University, the Iraqi Ambassador to America echoed these sentiments when discussing Shia in power in Baghdad today: they did and do not ‘sell out’ Iraq to Iran in any way, shape or form, act as Iranian stooges or even fail to drive a hard bargain where necessary. They were Iraqi first and Shia second.

Exactly the same logic has been apparent in Bahrain recently. Bahrain, like Iraq under Saddam, is mostly Shia but ruled by a Sunni minority. In the Bahraini case the country is approximately 2/3 Shia. There have always been exceedingly close ties with Persia/Iran but some 230KM away. Indeed, the ruling al Khalifah family have always feared the closeness of Iran and their history of overlordship. Their fears are not eased by periodic hawkish remarks from various Iranian parliamentarians, such as last week’s comments by Ali Akber Nateq Nouri the speaker of Iran’s parliament bemoaning that Bahrain used to be the 14th province of Iran. Far from inciting his Shia, Farsi-speaking former country-men in Bahrain to stand up against the Sunni minority (whether that was what he was intending or not) such actions created a vociferous nationalist reaction and general opprobrium.

“Three Arab summits in response to the Gaza offensive.”

3-conferences-for-gaza-peaceAl-Quds Al-Arabi, London, January 17, 2009 (MEMRI)

The manifest strength of nationalism in the Middle East is one of the reasons that, despite most of the region having a common language, an over-achingly common religion, a common enemy in Israel, a common cause in the Palestinian situation and common social, cultural and political histories, so many divisions emerge when trying to come together over a given issue. The most recent example of this was in the establishment of conferences to deal with the Israeli invasion of Gaza: one involving Qatar, Iran and Syria, another with Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan and a third in Kuwait. As Gregory Gause writes, however, these divisions are nothing new and indeed were even more divisive in the recent past.

It could be argued that the desire for each Arab country to be seen as ‘fixer in chief’ stems from their inherent lack of democratic legitimacy. Without a popular mandate, leaders have to justify their positions in a different way. Acting as a leading country in the region, one that is standing up to Israel or assiduously helping the Palestinians, is all currency that may help fill the democratic void.