Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Bernard Lewis Project revisited

‘If the order were to be given for an attack, the American combat troops now operating in Iran would be in position to mark the critical targets with laser beams, to insure bombing accuracy and to minimize civilian casualties. As of early winter, I was told by the government consultant with close ties to civilians in the Pentagon, the units were also working with minority groups in Iran, including the Azeri’s, in the north, the Baluchi's, in the southeast, and the Kurds, in the northeast. The troops “are studying the terrain, and giving away walking-around money to ethnic tribes, and recruiting scouts from local tribes and shepherds,” the consultant said. One goal is to get “eyes on the ground”—quoting a line from “Othello,” he said, “Give me the ocular proof.” The broader aim, the consultant said, is to “encourage ethnic tensions” and undermine the regime.’

This is a segment of an article in the New Yorker by Seymour Hersh, a widely respected American journalist. Based on anonymous sources in the Pentagon, Hersh discusses the Bush administration’s plans to launch major air attacks on Iran and its covert operations within Iran’s borders to destabilize the country.

The US “encouragement of ethnic tensions” has been recently addressed by critics, including the Islamic Republic itself. Prior to the latest presidential elections in Iran, the province of Khuzestan was shocked by multiple bombings, which led to considerable civilian casualties. Many blamed the Arab separatists who are becoming growingly active in this region. One influential theory says that these separatist groups receive support from the US and Great Britain.

More recently, the Azerbaijan province has been the stage of public protests, and clashes with government forces. The background of the unrest was the publication of a cartoon in a national newspaper, which was considered as disrespectful towards the Azeri minority. It is by no mean surprising that people of Azerbaijan take action to protect and emphasis their (ethnic) identity. The interesting fact is, however, the timing and scale of the reactions, which may suggest that there is, in fact, more at stake that only a shattered ethnic pride. Could it be possible that a cartoon, picturing a cockroach speaking Azeri, would create massive protests a few years ago, prior to the Iran-US crisis on nuclear technology?

The stimulation of ethnic unrest is (unfortunately) not a new idea. Specifically in case of Iran, the current US plans seem to resemble a much older agenda, which is known as the “Bernard Lewis Project” . Bernard Lewis is one of the most influential scholars in the study of Islam and Middle East, whose views and expertise has been widely represented in public and political domain(1). From a scientific perspective, his views on Islam and Middle East, and their relation with the West can be considered as extremely orientalistic.

The Bernard Lewis Project was first presented in 1979. The core proposal of this project is to divide countries in the Middle East along ethnic and regional lines into smaller, rival states in order to weaken the power of existing governments. According to Lewis the West should provoke rebellion for national autonomy by certain minority groups that will, eventually, lead to the fragmentation of powerful states. In case of Iran, he formally proposed to target the Arabs of Khuzestan (the Al-Ahvaz Project), the Azeri’s (the Greater Azerbaijan Project), the Kurds (the Greater Kurdistan Project) and the Baluchi’s (the Pakhtunistan Project).

Now more than 25 years later, Iran is still too big for the region. This is especially problematic, as the country is perceived as a hostile state by the US. Undoubtably, Iran is a true (potential) threat to the US interests in the Middle East. Given the neoconservative agenda of the current US administration, it is not surprising that parts of Lewis’s proposition have been reconsidered in the context of recent developments, and already initiated in practice.

Moreover, the current situation in neighboring Iraq, where the country balances on the edge of a civil war, can facilitate further ethnic tensions in Iran, especially when an independent, self-governing Kurdistan emerges in Iraq. However, America’s first objective would be to target the oil producing Khuzestan region, as its separation will automatically paralyze the entire country, including the central government.

Apparently, the US aggressive policy towards Iran seems to be a component of the much broader “Project for the New American Century”, an old agenda that has also been revived by the neocons to ensure the American dominance as the world’s only superpower in the region.

(1) Dick Cheney remraked “I had the pleasure of first meeting Bernard [Lewis] more than 15 years ago, during my time as Secretary of Defense. It was not long after the dictator of Iraq had invaded Kuwait, and we brought in a large number of outside experts to speak about the history and the way forward in the Middle East. As you might imagine, I got a wide range of advice -- some of it very good and some of it terrible. No one offered sounder analysis or better insight than Bernard Lewis. He was an absolute standout, and I decided that day that this was a man I wanted to keep in touch with, and whose work I should follow carefully in the years ahead..... In this new century, his wisdom is sought daily by policymakers, diplomats, fellow academics, and the news media.” (1 may 2006). Read the entire speech here.