The politics of gesture from Syria to Iran

By forestalling serious attempts to grapple with challenges, the politics of gesture may be making matters worse.
Sunday 06/05/2018
Editor-in-chief of Iran’s Kayhan newspaper Hossein Shariatmadari (R) talks to an unidentified man in Tehran. (AP)
Guardian of “true” principles. Editor-in-chief of Iran’s Kayhan newspaper Hossein Shariatmadari (R) talks to an unidentified man in Tehran. (AP)

In Rana Haddad’s new novel, “The Unexpected Love Objects of Dunya Noor,” a young woman returning home to Syria after living in England is asked by a security officer at Damascus Airport if her tatty old box-camera means she is a spy.

“Spies don’t use these types of cameras, look,” she tells him. “This is too old-fashioned and used only for art photography. Spies hide their cameras in fountain pens and umbrellas, didn’t you know?”

It’s fiction, albeit telling satire for anyone who knows Syria, but it’s less far-fetched than a suggestion from an Iranian editor. Hossein Shariatmadari, editor-in-chief of Iran’s Kayhan newspaper, said cameras set by Iranian environmentalists to track endangered cheetahs were designed for foreign intelligence agencies to monitor Iran’s missile tests.

Shariatmadari is an intelligent man — I have spoken several times with him in his Tehran office — and he is entitled to expect vigilance from Iran’s security services with so many threats abroad of “regime change” and military strikes. However, he is surely libelling intelligence operatives of the United States, Britain and Israel by suggesting they would attempt something so crass and easily detected.

Far more likely, then, that Shariatmadari’s aim is to undermine Iranian environmentalists linked to the government of Iranian President Hassan Rohani. Rohani is a pragmatist and is opposed by Shariatmadari, who guards the “true” principles of the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

The recent resignation of Kaveh Madani as deputy head of the Environment Ministry may show the principlist tactic is working. In his 7-month tenure at the ministry, and at Imperial College London before that, Madani worked to find solutions to Iran’s shrinking lakes and rivers, air pollution and desertification. He was forced to resign after media outlets ran pictures of him dancing at a party, although it was far from clear when the incident occurred.

The politics of gesture is not confined to Iran. Before its missile attacks on Syria on April 14, the United States took the trouble to check with Moscow that the targets were acceptable and more or less empty.

Yossi Alpher, the perceptive Israeli analyst and former senior Mossad officer, was scathing on the APN website. “As with the previous American strike against Syria last year,” he wrote, “[US President Donald] Trump seems to have been moved primarily by video coverage of Syrian children affected by a gas attack — children, incidentally, whose potential entry into the United States as Syrian refugees he has barred. Prominently, Trump blamed not only the Assad regime in Damascus but Russia, too.”

Because Russia immediately threatened to shoot back at any US missiles or facilities launching them, Washington opted to tread softly. “No Western-launched missiles or air attacks targeted Russian facilities,” wrote Alpher. “In fact, all… missiles targeted empty Syrian chemical research and development and storage facilities.

“Russia did not respond militarily. Both Russia and the United States acknowledged that the two had been in close contact to coordinate the dimensions and targets of the US attack on Syria.”

All of this meant Trump could look tough, pleasing his supporters through an empty (if expensive) gesture. As Alpher summed it up: “The Pentagon got the blustering Trump off the hook by hitting empty Syrian targets.”

The Europeans’ aim in the affair was probably giving Trump enough leeway to stay in the Iran nuclear deal. By following Trump over Syria and backing his criticism of Iran’s missile programme — Europe proposes new sanctions on Iranian individuals linked to missiles and Iran’s Syrian presence — the Europeans may do just enough to let Trump claim they have bowed to his pressure.

Earlier this year, Paul von Maltzahn, a former senior German diplomat, told me Europe was making gestures. “Although Europe would be happy if the Iranians would cut down their [missile] programme it’s not a driving force in our policies,” he said. “We’re looking for ways to get Trump off his plan to destroy the [the Iranian nuclear deal].”

So we have politicians playing to domestic constituencies, taking actions they know are hollow and making statements they know are false or misleading.

It could be satire but it isn’t. Yet the politics of gesture does nothing to tackle the real challenges — security tensions and arms build-up in the Middle East, Iran’s looming environmental catastrophe or the consequences of carnage in Syria.

Indeed, by forestalling serious attempts to grapple with these challenges, the politics of gesture may be making matters worse.