Recent disturbances in Iran and China have drawn attention to not only the fragility of their socio-political systems but also to contradictions in how the United States and other Western powers react to such events. America's response to demonstrations in Iran after the presidential election of June 12, 2009 has grown from one of caution to aggression and confrontation. On the contrary, its reaction over the outbreak of violence between Uighurs and Han Chinese in the far-flung region of Xinjiang in south-east China three weeks later has been one of timidity and silence.
Elections in Iran are not perfect, but China is worse for its citizens, its minorities in particular. The most contentious aspect of elections in Iran is the process of approval of candidates by the Guardian Council, a body dominated by the conservative clergy. That process having been completed, campaigning in the run up to polling had been remarkable. The US-style television debates were notable for their sharp exchanges between candidates. All that changed after the authorities in Tehran announced the victory of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the conservative incumbent, over his main rival, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, perceived as a relatively liberal figure in Iranian politics. The margin was overwhelming - 63 percent for Ahmadinejad to 33 percent for his nearest rival, Mousavi.
While the Organization of Islamic Conference, Russia, China and India, among others, congratulated Ahmadinejad on his re-election, allegations of fraud were raised almost immediately in the United States, Britain and other European countries. President Obama appeared reluctant in the beginning to join in the chorus of protests from America's right. He even said that he did not want to be seen as interfering in another country's affairs.
America's political right and Israel lobby, represented by Republicans and Democrats alike, saw an opportunity. The Republican right, in particular, is keen to portray Obama as weak just as it had done during the Clinton presidency. Obama's statement about ‘unclenched fist and extended hand of friendship', aimed precisely at countries like Iran, had triggered alarm bells among hawks on both sides. Senator John McCain, defeated by Obama a few months before, thundered on NBC's Today show, demanding that "Obama declare this a corrupt, fraud, sham of an election. The Iranian people have been deprived of their rights." After that intervention, voices against Iran became progressively shrill.
There are people close to the administration that believe Ahmadinejad actually won the election. The huge margin alone would make it difficult to fix the result in a country where the levels of education and political awareness are high. Time magazine on its website carried an article dated June 16, 2009; the headline was ‘Don't Assume Ahmadinejad Really Lost'. The story, written by the magazine's intelligence columnist and former CIA field officer Robert Baer, made the point that demonstrations against the election result were held in north Tehran and in public places like Azadi Square, where the educated and wealthy live. These middle class liberals are among supporters of Mousavi, who say the election was stolen from him. Baer pointed out, however, that protests in poor slums and rural areas of Iran were almost absent. It is in these areas that support for Ahmadinejad is concentrated. But such reports are inconvenient for anti-Iran hawks in Washington.
On July 5, Vice President Jo Biden sounded a strident note. In a long exchange on the ABC's television show, This Week, Biden's remarks were interpreted as showing the green-light to Israel's war-mongering Netanyahu government to do what it wants in relation to Iran. Asked whether the Obama administration would stand in the way in case Netanyahu decided that Iran posed a threat and wanted to take out the nuclear program, Biden replied: "We cannot dictate to another sovereign nation what they can or cannot do." The most one-sided logic if there was one. Clearly, the principle of sovereignty applies to Israel, but not to Iran. Barely 48 hours had passed when Obama was forced to deny there was any green-light from Washington to Israel to bomb Iran.
The Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, was not going to be left behind in this game of aggressive posturing. On July 15, she warned Tehran that Washington's offer of ‘engagement' was not indefinite. Iran must respond now to overtures from Obama, or it could face more isolation. How can a US politician known for her closeness to the Israel lobby, and who spoke of ‘obliterating Iran' during her failed presidential campaign in 2008, be trusted to want peace with Israel's main adversary in the Middle East? And how can condemnations of ‘election fraud' in Iran have any real effect from a country where, as many Iranians remember, Al Gore lost the presidency in the most bizarre circumstances to George W Bush in the November 2000 election?
The events in Xinjiang highlight a deep festering crisis in a forgotten corner of China, where some of the most brutal tactics of suppression have been used by Beijing against the ethnic Uighurs, the Turkic Muslim community. Just like Tibet, large numbers of Han Chinese have been moved to the region, reducing the Uighur population to less than half. Xinjiang has seen several rebellions in the past. The toll in the latest violence is high - almost 200 dead, more than 1700 injured and hundreds detained and tortured in one of the most remote parts of the world. The number of Uighurs leaving Xinjiang is in the thousands.
Despite all this, the response of the Obama administration, in particular of his Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, continues to be minimalist and weak. The White House spokesman called for ‘restraint' by both sides - an odd attempt to strike a balance between China's rulers, whose treatment of dissidents and ethnic minorities has long been brutish and nasty, and a minority at the receiving end of the full force of the Chinese state. This contrast between Washington's attitudes to Iran and China underlines the vulnerability of the United States today. According to the US Census Bureau, bilateral trade between China and America in 2008 was in excess of $300 billion. America owes China the largest public and private debt of around $2 trillion. And China is still useful as a counter to Russia. In an era of war-weariness and economic vulnerability, the Obama administration continues to show prudence without principle on the one hand and diplomacy without knowledge on the other - just like his predecessor.
Deepak Tripathi is the author of Overcoming the Bush Legacy in Iraq and Afghanistan (Foreword by John Tirman), to be published by Potomac Books, Inc in the United States in November 2009.