Prof Laleh Khalili on Iran, ISIS, and the future of the Middle East

Published: February 5, 2016 - 16:06 Updated: December 13, 2017 - 13:58

Iranian-American professor Laleh Khalili teaches international studies with a specific focus on Iran and the Middle East, at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. She is the author of Heroes and Martyrs of Palestine: The Politics of National Commemoration and Time in the Shadows: Confinement in Counterinsurgencies, a book which investigates the two major liberal counterinsurgencies the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the US war on terror. In rich detail, the book investigates Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo Bay, CIA black sites, the Khiam prison, and Gaza, among other places, and links them to a history of colonial counterinsurgencies, from the Boer War and the American Indian wars to Vietnam, the British small wars in Malaya, Kenya, Aden and Cyprus, and the French pacification of Indo-China and Algeria. As she describes in another interview, she has a visceral connection to the condition of imprisonment. “My parents had been political prisoners in the early years of the revolution and their experience had massively and devastatingly scarred my father and changed the course of our family’s life and history.” 

On a sunny afternoon at the colourful Diggi Palace in Jaipur, the venue for the Jaipur Literature Festival, where she was invited as a panelist, Hardnews sat down with Prof Khalili to discuss the violent protests against Saudi Arabia in Iran, the rising scourge of sectarianism, the rise of the Islamic State and the future of the Middle East. Excerpts from the interview: 

Sadiq Naqvi  Jaipur 

How do you look at the attacks on the Saudi embassy in Tehran and the consulate in Mashhad?

There is a lot which happens in Iran which is impossible to focus on partially because those kinds of attacks are sometimes orchestrated from behind the scenes and it is difficult to see whether they are intended to be an official thing or unofficial. There are two ways to understand it. One would be to say that such attacks happened because Iranians felt offended by Nimr al-Nimr’s execution. And they engaged in attacks on the Saudi embassy in Tehran and the consulate in Mashhad because of this raised temperature. I am sure that many of the people who were out in the streets and took part in demonstrations did feel that way. It is important to recognise that the degree with which it was felt was real. I also think that in Iran, like almost everywhere else, the government is divided in different ways that people sometimes don’t understand. In the run-up to the elections, which are going to be hotly contested, there are more militant parts of the government, both formal and informal parts, who want to re-establish the revolutionary credentials in the aftermath of what is seen by large swathes of the population as a capitulation on the nuclear agreement with the US. So the attacks on the embassy were intended in some ways as re-establishment of these credentials of the radicals. I think, as soon as they did it and the reactions came from across the region, there was a sense that it was done very badly. And so you ended up getting condemnations from, for example, the IRGC [Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps] as well as very recently from Khamenei himself. In some ways, any calculus that was behind that original movement has been seen to have been badly done.  

Was it reminiscent of the hostage crisis in any way?

To me, it wasn’t. Partially because the aim was not to take hostages. Partially because it was not an organised movement like it was in 1979. If there was one way in which it resembled it, the moment of hostage-taking after the revolution was also the moment of extraordinary division within the revolutionary movement. Many of the most revolutionary movements then felt that they had been betrayed by the deals being made with the US. So the invasion of the embassy was intended to scupper that and it was also intended to consolidate the most radical elements of the revolution which didn’t want the revolution to be co-opted by the US. So in that way it was similar. But everything else was very dissimilar because in many ways the post-revolutionary moment had all kinds of movements with ideological backing behind them and authentic ones in problematic ways as well. This was the movement which thereafter purged some of the best revolutionaries, including the communists. But revolutions eat their own children and that was the function of that movement. But I think a lot of what happened at the Saudi embassy in Tehran and the consulate in Mashhad was actually theatre. It is really important to recognise that it was theatre. Those kinds of performances, though destructive and with terrible reverberations and consequences for the people caught in between, are nevertheless not at all equivalent to the kind of performances that emerge in a revolution.     

Coming back to the execution of Nimr al-Nimr, Iranian Shias are very different from their Saudi or Bahraini counterparts, for example. Why would they suddenly associate so emotionally with someone and that too someone who was critical of Iran in many ways? Nimr criticised Wilayat al-Faqih…

Absolutely. Not only did he question Wilayat al-Faqih, he also opposed Bashar al-Assad who is Iran’s closest ally among the Arabs. It is quite interesting. It is cynical of me, but I think Iran was not too unhappy to see Nimr al-Nimr a martyr because he was probably more useful as a martyr than as a thorn in the side of the regime. The Iranian regime would like to play into the sectarian narrative, that they are the leader and the protector of the Shias across the region and across the world. But, as you mentioned, I absolutely believe that the Shia communities within Iran and across the region have their own character, their own history and political complexions and beliefs and practices. Certainly, the Shias in Lebanon are nothing like the Shias in Iran, if you look at their practices and politics. It is hugely important to note that because one of the things the Saudis would like to do by whipping up sectarianism and by making all Shias seem a homogenous, monolithic group under Iran, it is a very useful weapon for the Saudis to suppress their own democracy-seeking, rambunctious minority population of Shias which is probably about 15-20% of the population and happens to reside in the part of the country which has all of the oil. So the movement comes from both sides. The Saudis are trying to make it seem as if all the Shias are together and Iran would like to pretend it is the leader and protector of Shias and we know that is not true. 

The sectarian dimension to the conflict, especially in the past couple of years, seems to be blowing up and it has attained levels we hadn’t seen or imagined. Even in places like Bangladesh, which has a very minuscule population of Shias, we see them being targetted now…

It is really important to talk about specific contexts and I don’t know much about South Asia to be able to comment on it but I am sure there are local reasons also for the particular way this kind of sectarianism has emerged. It is also crucial to mention that sectarianism has become such a factor not because of religious difference which of course existed for hundreds of years and it is not because of ancient hatred or the kind of simplistic vacuous bullshit that you often hear but precisely because differences are being politicised. It is really important to note that Alawis, for example, are not considered proper Shias by the Shias nor are Houthis and yet you suddenly have this discourse. In the 1960s the conservative Saudi regime was happy to support the conservative Zaydi imam, who is today being called the Shia in Yemen. It is important to note that there are closer connections between the conservative regimes in terms of the practices they subject their citizens to whether or not they are Shias or Sunnis.  The sectarianism being mobilised in this way and then being fed – once you create a monster, it is a bit like Frankenstein’s monster in the sense that once you create it, it has to be fed and it can feed on you and it becomes a self-sustaining machinery. And I suspect that because it has become a self-sustaining machinery and it needs to be fed, that is part of the reason it is spreading to other locations and countries. People are finding it a very useful discourse to play up whatever local grievances they may have within that frame because that frame is very legible to everybody and that makes you part of a larger movement. Rather than somehow showing that the differences you are playing on are petty local differences.   

When you read the Western media, there is an attempt to see every conflict in a sectarian light…

There is a particularly simplistic way in which the US looks at communal differences and identity politics, like the way it understands world politics. It is important to remember that when the Balkan wars happened in the 1990s it was said to be a case of ancient hatred rather than a case of very modern transformations and falling apart of a country that was held together through a whole series of political and military mechanisms after the Second World War. It is an easy way of thinking about things. It makes everything seem apolitical and that benefits the US. Because, if it is apolitical then there must be something intrinsically and inherently wrong with people who are sectarian or communal and so on. Ancient hatred is a nice alibi for intervention from outside. Because if they can’t solve their problems and if it is ancient and they haven’t been able to sort it out for 1,400 years then maybe we need to fix it for them. So in that way it feeds into a racist, perhaps orientalist, imagination of the people, only defined by particular allegiances and attachments. 

Do you see an attempt to redraw the lines?

I am sure there are attempts to redraw the lines. One of the things that needs to be recognised is that the larger US strategy in the Middle East in almost the entirety of the 20th century and now in the 21st century has been the fragmentation of the nationalist or leftist or whatever regimes that could potentially challenge their hegemony in the region. And one of the most successful ways that you can do that is by fragmenting the places in which these radical regimes exist. Their strategic interests are embedded in these particular forms of politics, particular forms of military collaboration, particular forms of acquiescing. For example, the Saudi sectarianisation of these different conflicts and that kind of acquiescence in effect is an end result of further fragmentation along sectarian lines. 

It is very difficult to understand that on the one hand the US is trying to bring Iran into its fold and on the other still feeding the Saudis. How do you make sense of it?

There are several reasons for this. There is an attempt on the part of the US, particularly on Obama’s part, to perhaps make sure that he has a legacy. US Presidents work on their legacies in their second terms and for Obama it has been quite a successful second term. He has been trying to reach a diplomatic solution to what has been essentially a thorn in the US’ side. There is a second, much larger, neoliberal reason. And that is, bringing Iran into the fold benefits everybody who is neoliberal and capitalist. It is a place in which investments can be made and, in fact, as soon as news of the sanctions being lifted started coming in the Europeans sent their delegations to Iran. It is a big market and it is a vast source of not only oil but other mineral resources. So bringing Iran into the fold also benefits them in that way. Before 1979, Iran and Saudi Arabia were part of the US twin pillars policy in the Middle East. They were the pillars that were supposed to forestall the rise of nationalist or leftist movements in the region. I think that there is some fantasy memory of reworking that in a new form. Of course, if you could do it you would have the supposed leader of the Shias and the leader of the Sunnis in your fold. It also shows a shortsighted nostalgia and succumbing to this terrible and pernicious fantasy leadership by Saudi Arabia and Iran. 

How do you see the rise of the Islamic State, the fact that it suddenly has control over some territory in Syria and Iraq and also the fact that a lot of the leadership spent time in American prisons? Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was, in fact, released for good conduct.

The emergence of ISIS is really the result of the confluence of many different factors: the devastation of Iraq and the unleashing of massive violence there by the US in 2003 and thereafter; the devastation wrought by the Assad regime against groups that far too quickly (and perhaps with the encouragement of external supporters) abandoned mass mobilisation in favour of armed struggle; and a vast number of structural factors (including the devastation of the rural hinterlands of Syria; drought brought on by climate change; the neoliberalisation of the Assad regime which ended redistributive subsidies, etc).  

But also, as Antonio Gramsci has written, “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” ISIS and its extraordinary brutality which seems to co-opt and incorporate the worst orientalist and racist cliches about Islam and Muslims seems to be the kind of monster born in the liminal period between the end of the old order (of post-colonial and increasingly neoliberal regimes) and the birth of an unknown new order. They are also born of sectarianism, disaffection, tacit or explicit external support, and the kind of ideological dogmatism that has no compunctions about deploying extraordinary and spectacular brutality to achieve its ends. 

With the UN-sponsored peace talks and similar attempts on other platforms, do you see a solution coming to the Syrian crisis?

Whatever solution emerges (and I suspect it will be a long time before we see a settlement, because the opposition is fragmented and the Assad regime is intransigent), the fundamental problems that led to the Syrian uprising and later to its militarisation still persist and have not been addressed in any kind of substantive way and will not be addressed by a UN peace conference. These fundamental problems tend to be socioeconomic in addition to political, and peace conferences address the latter rather than the former. 

How does this raging conflict in the Middle East affect the Palestinian issue? 

The Arab public still profoundly cares about the Palestinian issue but as their leadership in many instances enter tacit or open alliances with Israel, I suspect Palestinians will be neglected by these regimes. This may actually be a blessing in disguise since historically the intervention of Arab regimes in Palestinian affairs has meant nothing but the distortion or diversion or the corruption or the brutalisation of the Palestinian cause.

Photo Courtesy: Zee Jaipur Literature Festival


Prof Laleh Khalili speaks to Hardnews, on the violent protests against Saudi Arabia in Iran, the rising scourge of sectarianism, the rise of the Islamic State and the future of the Middle East. Excerpts
Sadiq Naqvi Jaipur

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