A BABOON-faced thug with hair dyed orange threatens — and then repeats his threat — to destroy the world’s precious architectural heritage. He is not Mullah Omar, who ordered blowing up the 1,500-year-old Bamiyan Buddhas. Nor is he from among the ISIS fanatics who levelled the Tomb of Jonah and, later, the 800-year-old Al-Nuri Mosque in Mosul. This man is the president of a country that for decades has preached human rights and rule of law to the world.
Could Trump actually carry out his threat against 52 identified sites inside Iran? While temperatures went down after Iran made only a token missile strike instead of a real one, the long-term danger persists. The Orange Godzilla will certainly have a wide range of choices: the massive architectural complexes of ancient Persepolis, the Pink Mosque of Shiraz, the Tomb of Cyrus the Great, Imam Reza’s shrine in Mashad, and much more.
Today, I am proudly Iranian in siding against a global bully that flouts accepted canons of law and decency. Outrage at America’s overseas rampages is joining together peoples with hugely different thoughts and beliefs. Vicariously I too have joined the millions thronging Iran’s streets and public squares. In choosing to do so I will forget — but for one day and no more — that Iran’s theocratic government crushes civil liberties, has helped prop up Bashar al-Assad’s murderous government in Syria, and seeks to make atomic weapons.
To their credit, US Democrats and the liberal Western media have also joined the chorus condemning Trump’s intent to put Iranian cultural sites under the crosshairs. Their reaction has forced Trump to step back, even if ever so slightly. But when it comes to discussing America’s ‘right’ to assassinate officials of a rival country, only mealy mouthed mumbles can be heard.
Outrage at America’s overseas rampages is joining together peoples with hugely different thoughts and beliefs.
Because the story brings out starkly the corruption of justice by power, let’s ponder upon a tale of two generals.
Maj Gen Qassem Soleimani’s assassination by drone was punishment, tweeted Trump, for a “terrorist leader who had just killed an American, & badly wounded many others, not to mention all of the people he had killed over his lifetime”. Trump goes on to claim that Soleimani was planning to attack US targets but has so far provided no evidence.
For now, let’s withhold judgement whether this Iranian general stands guilty as charged. If guilty, one should not be surprised. Every Iranian military officer would be expected to respond to enemy actions, in particular last week’s American attack upon Iranian assets inside Iraq which left 24 Iranians dead. Soleimani could likely have planned or ordered the counterattack which killed an American contractor.
Now compare Soleimani with another general — this time an American general — who was hell bent upon making his case for war at the United Nations. On Feb 5, 2003, charged by president George W. Bush with creating global enthusiasm for the forthcoming invasion of Iraq, Gen Colin Powell famously waved a sheaf of papers purportedly containing conclusive evidence of Iraq’s hidden weapons of mass destruction.
Rubbishing warnings from other UN delegates that the data might be fakery, Powell’s solemn declaration was recorded into posterity: “My colleagues, every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources. These are not assertions. What we’re giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence.”
Powell’s pack of lies ushered in one of the most dreadful periods of recent world history. Evening after evening, an obscene display of military power — Operation Shock and Awe — titillated American TV audiences. Iraqi defenders were routed soon after hundreds of missiles crashed into Baghdad. Half a million Iraqis were killed, Shia-Sunni fratricide continued for years, the militant Islamic State group was born, and Iraq’s centuries old architectural heritage was looted.
As for the alleged WMDs, who doesn’t know that story? Victorious American soldiers scoured Iraq from end to end searching for them. None were found because none had existed. Nevertheless, the lies delivered solemnly by Powell paved the way for invasion. How can his not be a war crime?
But the side with more guns and bombs protects its own, even the guilty ones. Gen Soleimani lies dead while Gen Powell is said to be playing golf, writing his memoirs, and leading a quiet life of retirement. When asked about his infamous speech, Powell called it “painful” and something that “will always be a part of my records”. For a mega crime that led to a country’s devastation, that’s not even a token apology.
So, does Powell deserve assassination? Should the Statue of Liberty and Washington Monument be put upon somebody’s list of targets? I certainly hope not. These would be serious crimes. Fortunately, no such thing is likely to happen.
That Trump is desperately seeking to distract from ongoing impeachment proceedings cannot be denied. But the purpose of assassinating Iran’s national hero was possibly to elicit a suicidal response. American airpower can quickly level Iran’s critical infrastructure and bomb the country to its knees. Israel, Saudi Arabia and UAE would be thrilled if that happens. Iran would then join the list of the neighbourhood’s neutered or destroyed countries — Iraq, Syria and Libya.
At least for now, the Iranian leadership has been smart enough to avoid this trap. Earlier, by negotiating the JCPOA nuclear agreement, they showed pragmatism. When the US decided to tear it up, their response was measured. What lies ahead cannot be foretold.
The world has inched closer towards a Hobbesian dystopia where the might-is-right ‘principle’ holds increasing sway. Trump’s America no longer feels itself bound to international treaties, agreements, laws and statutes. In a world governed by thugs and bullies, there will be endless cycles of violence, retribution, and ugliness. So far, it is mostly proxies that have battled each other in the shadows. They have largely abided by an unwritten rule not to kill the other side’s functionaries, diplomats, ambassadors and public figures. With Soleimani’s assassination this could now change, because Iran knows well how to play that game. Suddenly, the world is a more dangerous place.
The writer teaches physics in Lahore and Islamabad.
Published in Dawn, January 11th, 2020