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Bahrain and Iran: compare and contrast

There is a massacre going on in Bahrain. The regime has met the demands of peaceful protesters for basic, democratic freedoms with rounds of live ammo. Several have reportedly been shot in the head, demonstrating a clear intent to kill on the part of Bahrain’s despots. The lesson they appear to have drawn from Egypt is that only state terror can hold back the tide of revolution sweeping the Middle East.

If you were expecting the US Government to come down unequivocally on the side of democracy, prepare to be disappointed. ”The US calls for restraint by the government as well by the protestors,” said Acting Deputy Department Spokesman Mark Toner, as though a dictatorship armed to the teeth can be put on the same moral level as defenceless protesters. Yes, he acknowledged the frustrations of the Bahraini people in a statement that will no doubt leave the tyrants ruling over them quaking in their boots: ”And insofar as the government can address those concerns, we think it’s right to do so.”

But what about the spread of the protest contagion to Iran? Unlike the Bahrainis being slaughtered in the streets, Hillary Clinton announced that the US “very clearly and directly” backed Iran’s protesters. ”What we see happening in Iran today is a testament to the courage of the Iranian people, and an indictment of the hypocrisy of the Iranian regime – a regime which over the last three weeks has constantly hailed what went on in Egypt.”

I happen to agree with her that Iran’s rulers are indeed guilty of hypocrisy. But there’s hypocrisy, and then there’s chutzpah. What we are seeing is a clear example of the cynicism of a US foreign policy guided not by any genuine democratic idealism, but by cold, strategic, economic self-interest.

Just a couple of months ago, Clinton was hailing Bahrain as a “model partner”, even going as far as to say she was ”impressed by the commitment that the government has to the democratic path that Bahrain is walking on.” And, as former Foreign Officer minister Denis MacShane has pointed out, the British Government has been overly generous in allowing British companies to stock the Bahraini dictatorship with weapons that have only one clear purpose: internal repression.

US President Franklin Roosevelt once supposedly said of Nicaragua’s dicator: “Somoza may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.” The difference between Bahrain and Iran is that the former is ruled by our “son of a bitch”, and the latter isn’t.

That’s why the US unequivocally backs oil-rich Saudi Arabia – one of the world’s most repressive dictatorships; but attempts to overthrow Venezuela’s democratically-elected (but non-compliant) President Hugo Chavez with military coups.

It’s why the US routinely condemns the violation of human rights in Cuba, but lavished Uzbekistan’s pro-US regime with aid when it was boiling dissidents to death.

And it’s why when, in a free election, the Palestinian people voted for the “wrong people”, the US responded by suspending all foreign aid.

Look back at the history of US foreign policy since World War II, and a similar pattern will emerge. Take Latin America – so far from God, so close to the United States, as Porfirio Díaz once reportedly said about Mexico. The continent suffered a number of brutal US-backed coups against democratically-elected leaders, most famously in Chile; and from the active promotion of US-funded terrorism, such as the Contras in Nicaragua and nun-killing death squads in El Salvador.

Or take Iraq’s former tyrant, Saddam Hussein. His Ba’athist Party were helped to power by the CIA, who supplied them with a list of Communists to slaughter. Iraq was one of the US’s closest Middle Eastern allies in the 1980s, and was backed to the hilt in its war against Iran. It was only when he went off script and invaded Kuwait – challenging the US’s oil-backed dominance of the region – that he became enemy number one.

I don’t doubt that US policy-makers would prefer, in an ideal world, for every country to be a democracy. Why wouldn’t they? But it has proved a secondary concern to defending US strategic interests. A pro-US dictatorship will always enjoy the active support of the United States; a democratic government that resists US hegemony will find itself being actively undermined.

I hope that the US government respects whoever the people of the Middle East decide to rule over them, if they are given the chance to do so. But, if history is any guide, I wouldn’t hold your breath.

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