Difficult to Determine who to Support


The History Channel showed a documentary the other night called ‘Idi Amin: the Man Who Ate His Archbishop’s Liver’. Amin became president of Uganda after a military coup in 1971. His regime was notorious for its brutality and it is estimated that he was responsible for the deaths of up to 300,000 people. He fled Uganda when Tanzania invaded in 1979 and died in exile in 2003.

In January 1977 Amin accused the Anglican archbishop of Uganda of conspiring in an invasion plot and had him and two of his Cabinet ministers murdered. It was after this that rumours circulated about cannibalism and about Amin keeping severed heads in the a freezer at home with which he had late-night conversations. Anyway, the stories have almost become ‘facts’ though they have never been substantiated.

It can be extremely difficult to establish exact truths – especially in relation to conflict situations where propaganda or public relations is such a crucial weapon and is used by all sides to blacken another side’s reputation in order to elicit sympathy and support. We need look no further afield than are own war to appreciate how events are depicted and distorted, especially by opponents and in much of the media.

When attempting to discern something approximating towards the truth, say, in relation to the former apartheid regime in South Africa, or the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, the familiarity of the arguments, a natural sympathy with an easily identified underdog, our own political prejudices, an accessibility to news reports, interviews, talks, reading material, makes the task a seemingly less difficult one.

But there are so many conflicts going on around the world that you would need to spend from dawn to dusk sifting through the documentary evidence to gain an understanding of them, even if that were possible. And so, our guides are personal experience, what we know of history, human nature and behaviour. We listen to friends or comrades. We buy newspapers whose line we mostly agree with and accept some or most of its reportage and editorials. We guess a lot. We use our intuition.

And even after all that it can still be a fairly tenuous understanding of what is really going on.

A few months ago I was asked to speak at a rally in Paris which was being organised by the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) which is opposed to the theocratic regime in Tehran. I turned down the request for two reasons.

Firstly, I had only recently organised a petition appealing to the Iranian President not to change the name of Bobby Sands Street in the capital where the British embassy is located. British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw had been secretly lobbying for a name change. It would not exactly have been politic for me to have publicly attacked the Iranian government.

Secondly, I know little about the situation in Iran bar that it gave the US a bloody nose in 1979 when the pro-American Shah was overthrown by Ayatollah Khomeini who took power and established a Shiite Islamist regime. Subsequently Iran was attacked by Iraq (under Saddam Hussein, the US’s ally), which led to a long and bloody war. Currently it is facing possible sanctions because it has developed a nuclear programme.

The government in Tehran also admired the hunger strikers of 1981 and, indeed, sent a representative to the funeral of Bobby Sands.

I am aware of other bits and pieces, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch reports citing widespread torture, public executions and floggings, and the persecution of academics, journalists and intellectuals. Election laws prevent candidates outside the ruling elite from running for high public office and require them to observe Islam. Whilst women have the vote they cannot stand for the Presidency.

Among those who fought the Shah’s despotic rule was the leftist People’s Mujahedeen Organisation of Iran, otherwise known as Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MEK). However, two years after the 1979 revolution the MEK was suppressed, many of its leaders were executed, and in 1986 it moved into bases in Iraq where it was given succour and financial support by Saddam Hussein. From Iraq it launched attacks on Iran and supported Iraq in its eight-year war against Iran. Its political front, the NCRI, made Paris its headquarters, though two years ago the authorities raided its offices, seized $8 million and made some arrests.

Since the American invasion of Iraq, over 3,000 members of the MEK have been under US supervision in their camps, being guarded from attacks principally by Iranian forces. However, there are other reports that the MEK made enemies within Iraq by assisting Saddam Hussein in suppressing domestic opposition, which the MEK, I understand, has denied.

MEK and NCRI want to see a secular, democratic Iran, with elections under UN supervision, and have been lobbying for support internationally. However, because the MEK was alleged to have killed US soldiers and civilians in the 1970s, were involved in the takeover of the US embassy in Tehran in which 52 Americans were held hostage, and killed a number of civilians in its campaign against the Iranian government, it was designated a terrorist organisation by the US State Department in 1997 and by the EU in 2002.

Speakers representing the organisation have spoken in Belfast recently, rallying support for their cause. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend these meetings.

One curious aspect of their lobbying is that the organisation has offered to pay for flights and hotel accommodation for people to attend a rally in Paris this weekend. Many sound activists, including former republican prisoners, although I don’t know the total number of guests from Ireland (or from elsewhere), are going to Paris at the organisation’s expense to support the rally.

I find this disquieting, not least because it is unprecedented for a liberation organisation to pay for support. Spokespersons for the organisation are more than welcome to rebut my observations as ignorance.

It is impossible to establish how representative the NCRI is of the disgruntled Iranian people or of how much of a unifying force it is with most Iranian opposition groups. Surely, the fact that it supported Iraq against its own country, and claims to have supplied the US with intelligence on Iran’s nascent nuclear programme, is bound to have rebounded against it and cost it support?

The US government – which seeks regime change in Iran (part of Bush’s “axis of evil” – is quite prepared to exploit the Iranian resistance movement. Michael Ledeen, a neoconservative writer, has urged Washington to support the NCRI and has, along with over a hundred Congress Representatives, called for the designation of the MEK as a terrorist organisation to be lifted. He says that regime change would not require US military action, just “money, communications gear and good counsel.”

Of course, the IRA during the armed struggle sought support from diverse sources, from Libya to the USA; and Sinn Fein has also emphasised its democratic credentials and mandate to garner support from both Republican and Democrat administrations in North America, and elsewhere internationally.

However, the Republican Movement was never in hock to any power – which is probably why the road has been so long and rocky. Gerry Adams still visited Fidel Castro when many US supporters were advising him not to.

My point remains: the difficulty of establishing from conflicting reports the facts, in order to decide whether to support particular movements or groups involved in revolutionary struggle.

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© 2007 Irish Author and Journalist - Danny Morrison