Nelson Mandela, Iran, and the Critique of American Hegemony

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As the world commemorates Nelson Mandela, it is unfortunate that so much of the public discussion is dominated by the pious bloviating of politicians whose own careers seem not just unspeakably trivial compared to Mandela’s, but run directly against so much of what Mandela worked so hard to accomplish in his life.  We think it is better to remember Mandela’s own words and deeds.  In particular, we want to recall Mandela’s ties to the Islamic Republic of Iran, and his clear criticism of what he saw as America’s drive to dominate the Middle East and the Muslim world.

As Cyrus Safdari points out, everyone should remember that “Islamic Iran was strongly supporting the freedom movement [in South Africa], the US sided with the S African apartheid regime and Reagan in particular was opposed to the sanctions on that government.  Israel too was a close cooperator with the racist regime there, and may have even jointly developed a nuclear weapon with South Africa.  Israel was the most significant arms supplier to that regime throughout the 1980s and served as a lifeline for the apartheid government during a period when Pretoria faced growing international condemnation and heightened domestic unrest.”

So it is hardly surprising that in 1992—two years after his release from prison and two years before his election to South Africa’s presidency, during one of the most intense and difficult phases in the negotiations and political struggle to end apartheid in his own country—Mandela visited the Islamic Republic of Iran.  Upon his arrival in Tehran, Mandela said, “We are here to thank the Iranian government and nation for their support in the black people’s struggle against apartheid.”  And watch the short video embedded above, see here, in which Mandela meets Supreme Leader Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei, addressing Khamenei as “my leader.”  Mandela also laid a wreath at Imam Khomeini’s tomb.

Mandela visited Iran again as President of South Africa.  Throughout his presidency, he was publicly dismissive of efforts—including those by American presidents—to persuade him to turn away from the Islamic Republic.  As he said of the United States in 1997, “How can they have the arrogance to dictate to us who our friends should be?”  And after he left office in 1999, he was utterly clear in his critique of the increasingly hegemonic orientation of America’s post-9/11 policy in the Middle East.

In this spirit, Mandela spoke to Newsweek in 2002 about the George W. Bush administration’s accelerating drive to invade Iraq:

“We must understand the seriousness of this situation.  The United States has made serious mistakes in the conduct of its foreign affairs, which have had unfortunate repercussions long after the decisions were taken.

Unqualified support of the Shah of Iran led directly to the Islamic revolution of 1979.  Then the United States chose to arm and finance the [Islamic] mujahedin in Afghanistan instead of supporting and encouraging the moderate wing of the government of Afghanistan.  That is what led to the Taliban in Afghanistan.  But the most catastrophic action of the United States was to sabotage the decision that was painstakingly stitched together by the United Nations regarding the withdrawal of the Soviet Union from Afghanistan.

If you look at those matters, you will come to the conclusion that the attitude of the United States of America is a threat to world peaceBecause what [America] is saying is that if you are afraid of a veto in the Security Council, you can go outside and take action and violate the sovereignty of other countries.  That is the message they are sending to the world.

That must be condemned in the strongest terms…[T]here is no doubt that the United States now feels that they are the only superpower in the world and they can do what they like.”

Regarding the Bush administration’s fraudulent “case” about Saddam Husayn’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction, Mandela said that there was “no evidence whatsoever of [development of weapons of] mass destruction.  Neither Bush nor [British Prime Minister] Tony Blair has provided any evidence that such weapons exist.  But what we know is that Israel has weapons of mass destruction.  Nobody talks about that.  Why should there be one standard for one country, especially because it is black, and another one for another country, Israel, that is white.”

We know from our own experience in the George W. Bush administration that the Bush White House was concerned about Mandela’s criticisms—for he was one of the few international voices of unquestioned moral stature that the United States couldn’t manage to silence during the run-up to America’s illegal invasion of Iraq.  Such concern undoubtedly prompted our boss at the time, then-national security adviser Condoleeza Rice, to take a phone call from Mandela in which he offered basic political and moral correction on other aspects of American Middle East policy.  Rice could not have been more pleasant during her conversation with Mandela—but then, of course, she and her colleagues went ahead and did exactly as they had planned.

In the end, the Bush White House needn’t really have been concerned about Mandela’s outspoken criticisms of U.S. policy.  Too few people in post-9/11 America were willing to be galvanized into action to demand a different course—not even by an international icon whose own dedication to doing the right thing as he saw it was unsurpassed.  But Mandela’s words were absolutely on the mark.

It’s nice that, in the wake of Mandela’s death, President Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron have publicly praised his life.  But we wish that they would reflect seriously on Mandela’s critique of Western policy—for it might compel them to reorient that policy, especially toward the Islamic Republic of Iran, in a fundamentally different direction.

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett

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