With political disillusionment at an all-time high, a certain brand of hardline Middle Eastern leader is being elevated to the status of cult hero.
In my previous article, I was surprised by how much debate a passing remark I made about Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's ill-fitting suit sparked. Quite a few readers accused me of preferring style over substance. But that was missing the point entirely.
My comments on his appearance and approach were meant to illustrate how little Ahmadinejad understood and how badly he handled the carefully choreographed, glitzy, black-and-white world of American politics and media. Besides, being unrepentantly scruffy myself, I am hardly going to be snobbish, as some accused me, about the appearance of others.
As I prefer to judge people by their substance, I have great admiration for plenty of unconventional dressers, such as Mohandas Gandhi. Iran's first democratically elected leader, Mohammad Mosaddeq was apparently fond of wearing pink pyjamas and had the eccentric habit of bursting into tears in parliament.
Whereas some posters claimed that Ahmadinejad's modest attire was a sign of his moral rectitude, I am not so naïve as to read much into a politician's wardrobe. To his credit, the Iranian president still lives in the same modest Tehran apartment he occupied when he was the mayor of that city, but his personal thrift does not necessarily mean he has his people's best interests at heart.
In fact, the only clear message his dress sends out in the Iranian context is that he is not a cleric, unlike most of Iran's previous post-revolution presidents. But that doesn't make Ahmadinejad any more secular or less of an ideologue. He is an old guard of the Iranian revolution and, lacking his own popular support base, has been almost entirely dependent on the largesse of the hardline clerics for his political survival.
The amount of admiration expressed for Ahmadinejad by certain posters surprised me somewhat. A couple even went so far as to accuse me of being a neocon apologist.
Such remarks are symptomatic of a certain worrying trend in the Middle East. Disillusionment at the region's internationally pliant but domestically repressive regimes and anger at Anglo-American and Israeli militarism have combined to ensure that leaders seen to be defying the West or Israel, no matter how recklessly or for whatever selfish reasons, are elevated to the level of cult heroes in the eyes of millions – usually outside their own countries.
A reverse process is operating in many parts of the West, particularly the United States, where the same defiant figures are portrayed as irredeemably bad and irreducibly evil, while the unsightly corruption of co-operative ruling elites is airbrushed out.
The current crop of cult heroes are Ahmadinejad, Hizbullah's Hassan Nasrallah and the late Saddam Hussein, to name the most prominent examples (a related phenomenon is the Israeli penchant for electing leaders who shoot first and fail to ask questions later, such as Ariel Sharon).
But what people who subscribe to this narrative overlook is that, just because the neo-cons are the “bad guys”, that does not make their opponents the “good guys”. If Bush and his neocon cronies are guilty of “manufacturing consent”, these cult heroes have been culpable of attempting to manage discontent and divert it into dissent beyond their own borders.
Nasrallah's reckless and unnecessary provocation of an Israel itching for a fight, and the unrestrained Israeli fury it unleashed, was claimed by Hizbullah as a “divine victory”. The disturbing images and descriptions of wholesale destruction my wife brought back shortly after the 2006 war – as well as the cluster submunitions that litter south Lebanon – left me wondering what the Hizb would define as defeat.
Nasrallah may have been feted in the Arab world as a hero, but it was millions of ordinary Lebanese who paid the price for his recklessness and miscalculated gamble, cynically designed to revive Hizbullah's raison d'etre and waning popularity following the 2000 Israeli pullout from south Lebanon, and resist increasingly vocal calls within Lebanon for the shia'a militia to disarm or become part of the regular army.
Although Hizbullah's social and charity arm has served Lebanon's marginalised shia'a community well and is the de facto government of southern Lebanon, its military wing has done an enormous disservice to Lebanon as a whole – and more and more Lebanese are asking why that was.
On the other side of the border, the decision of Ehud Olmert (who, like Ahmadinejad, is an unpopular ex-mayor) to go to war was a cynical attempt to bolster his own slim popularity ratings with a show of military prowess which backfired dramatically against him. Olmert's recklessness has also set back prospects of the eventual acceptance of Israel into the Middle Eastern fold and future generations of Israelis will pay for his folly with their insecurity.
It is a testament to how badly the Bush-Blair duo's invasion of Iraq has turned out that millions of Iraqis now look back on Saddam Hussein's terrible years with a certain amount of fondness. In addition, the late Iraqi dictator has a surprisingly large fan club across the Arab world.
But to forgive him his many sins and eulogise his “faith in Arab unity [and] his confrontation of the Arab world's enemies” – as Abdel-Bari Atwan did at the time of Hussein's execution in the London-based newspaper, al-Quds al-Arabi – is turning the tragedy he inflicted on his long-suffering people and the divisions he inflicted on the region into farce.
In the case of Ahmadinejad, rather than take the tough socio-economic reforms required to create jobs for the legions of unemployed young people and provide the two-thirds of the population who are under the age of 30 with the modern, more liberal lifestyle they yearn for, he has been grandstanding on the international stage.
The nuclear powers are certainly hypocritical in their stance towards Iran's ambitions in this area. But even if Iran truly intends its nuclear programme only for civilian purposes, the question still remains: why does it need an expensive and wasteful scheme of this sort?
Wouldn't the vast resources being pumped into this programme be better spent boosting the country's creaking oil-refining capacity? It is a sad sign of the regime's warped priorities that this OPEC member has had to introduce an oil rationing programme under Ahmadinejad's watch because it is experiencing a shortage of refined petrol.
If the Iranian government is worried about the consequences of post-oil Iran, wouldn't it be a lot more sensible and less controversial to invest in solar power, given the abundant supply of sun the country enjoys? Concentrated solar power (the cheap and more low-tech cousin of photovoltaic technology) not only has the potential to produce all the electricity Iran could ever need, but also has the added advantage that it can desalinate seawater and reclaim desert land to boot.
It seems likely that the regime is engineering an unnecessary crisis to appease the hardliners and silence critics as unpatriotic at a time of national need. Of course, Ahmadinejad's gamble is that Washington is too embroiled in Iraq to attack Iran. But what if this calculated brinkmanship triggers an unexpected chain reaction? If America decides to take military action against Iran, it will be the Iranian people who will pay for Ahmadinejad's and Washington's folly.
But why are recklessly defiant leaders the subject of such admiration in the Middle East? I believe the reason for this is the inflexible structure of the post-colonial order in this strategically important region. The model that has prevailed since the early 20th century has tolerated repressive client states and punished, marginalised or radicalised moderate leaders who wanted to steer a more independent course.
A classic example is Mosaddeq. A secular, enlightened and democratically elected leader, he wanted to retain more of Iran's oil wealth to fuel the country's development. When the British refused to raise the royalties Iran received from the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (now British Petroleum) in 1951, Mossadeq went on to nationalise the Iranian oil industry.
This so infuriated the British that they persuaded the Americans to join them in engineering a coup – Operation Boot to the British and Operation Ajax to the Americans – to depose Mossadeq and reinstate the shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, whose repressive rule paved the way to the 1979 revolution.
“The coup that ended Iran's independence in 1953 would provide a bitter lesson to the revolutionaries of 1979. If the shah was to be deposed, there would be no flirtation with constitutional rights, no half-measures, no counter-revolutionaries to restore western power in Iran,” Robert Fisk writes in his monumental tome, The Great War for Civilisation.
At around the same time as Mossadeq, the Free Officers deposed the king and came to power in Egypt in 1952, probably with an eye cast to the drama playing out in Iran. The popular and populist Gamal Abdel-Nasser had started off as a great admirer of the West and wanted to build good ties with America which had even given his coup clandestine support. For his entire term in office, he was suspicious of communism.
However, his attempts to steer a non-aligned and independent policy – along with India and Yugoslavia – angered Britain, France and the United States. And, in the Cold War rhetoric of the time, if he wasn't with the West, he was against it. The Free Officers' precarious position, their desire to modernise Egypt, as well as the allure of power, led them to abandon their original plans to introduce democracy in Egypt and step aside for free elections.
And Egypt, the rest of the Middle East, and the wider world is suffering the long-term consequences of short-sighted western interventionism and the radicalisation it sparks.
This article first appeared in The Guardian on 3 October 2007.