Distributed September 2002
Op-Ed Editor: Mark Nickel
William O. Beeman
Specialists on Iran-Iraq region see American action in Iraq as a mistake
U.S. interventions in Afghanistan and its contemplated interventions in Iraq will demand a depth of non-military historical, social and political expertise that the United States currently does not have. The author reports from an international conference in Tajikistan.
DUSHANBEH, Tajikistan — Experts in the societies and cultures of the Persian-speaking regions of the world are deeply troubled by the United States’ proposed invasion of Iraq.
Hundreds of specialists in Persianate languages and societies from around the world gathered in the capital of Tajikistan last week to discuss topics ranging from Sufi mysticism to modern Iranian painting. In such a gathering, America’s relation with the region was a prime topic.
No topic was more important in the hallways of the conference than the possible invasion of Iraq by the United States. The general opinion was that although Saddam Hussein is an unworthy national leader, the U.S. government is far off base in its assessment of the dangers of such an invasion to the stability of the region. Moreover, Washington does not have the competence to manage internal Iraqi politics and a possible civil war in a post-invasion period.
Taghi Azadarmaki, an internationally known Iranian sociologist, said, “We believe that the United States doesn’t realize the implications of its actions. America is in Afghanistan. They are friendly with General Musharraf of Pakistan. Now, if they invade and occupy Iraq, it looks like they are starting a pincer movement with Iran as their next target. This makes everyone in the region wonder about American hegemony.”
Gholam-Abbas Tavassoli, another eminent Iranian sociologist, pointed out that Iran has made strong friendships in the states of the Arabian Peninsula in recent years. “If the United States invades Iraq, Iran will stand with the regional states to prevent further expansion of American power.”
Both sociologists noted, however, that Iranians are sick of violence and war and would be unlikely to participate in a fight to defend Iraq.
Another specialist on Kurdistan pointed out that the United States underestimates the depth of feeling of the Kurds in Northern Iraq about establishing an independent nation – something another American ally, Turkey, deeply opposes. As the specialist pointed out, the Kurdish saying is “The Kurds have no friends.” They believe the United States intends to use them cynically to get rid of Saddam Hussein, then abandon them. If the Americans stay in Iraq, and do not foster Kurdish independence, they will be surprised at the strength of Kurdish opposition to them.
Afghan specialists wondered how the United States intended to create a new state in Iraq when they have failed to do so in Afghanistan. “Every American promise for Afghanistan has been broken,” said Zahir Mo’meni, a social scientist working for the new Afghan government. “We are now looking primarily to European nations to help in our rebuilding effort. We are skeptical when we think of Americans trying to govern Iraq.”
Opinion was widespread that American expertise in the region is very thin. Many pointed out that the number of Americans who know anything in depth about Iraqi society amounts to a handful. The number who know about Iran is also small. Moreover, Washington is doing little to increase this knowledge. It has been nearly impossible for Ph.D. academic specialists from the region to get visas to visit the United States to consult with American academics and regional specialists – even when their credentials are impeccable.
The conference from which this article is being written – The First International Conference of the Association for the Study of Persianate Societies – was rescheduled to Dushanbeh when the U.S. Treasury Department prevented American organizers from holding it in Iran, where American visitors would have learned more about the current Iranian political and cultural situation. Clearly, frustrating contact between those who know the region best is a tactical error. If Washington does invade Iraq and remains there for a long time, America will need all the help it can get.