Thursday, December 29, 2005

Iran and the Story of the "Stupid Tree"

Mustafa al-Ani, Al-Hayat:
It never once occurred to me that there was actually something called the "stupid tree." But coincidence has come into play in showing that this tree truly exists. READ MORE

I was flipping through the pages of an international magazine and one of its ads, as a passing joke, referred to the existence of this tree, with this strange name, on an island in the Pacific Ocean. I was curious and decided to search for the truth about the existence of this tree and the origin of its name. However, I didn't have any luck. At first, I thought it was a joke that was meant to make the advertisement funny. After some time passed, as luck would have it, I met the Australian ambassador to a European country at a social occasion. We had a discussion over dinner about many things concerning Australia and its surroundings. Curiosity again prompted me to ask about whether there was such a "stupid tree" in that part of the world. I was quite astonished when the ambassador confirmed that such a tree existed, in a forest on an island in the south Pacific, believed to be Papau New Guinea. He knew that there was a huge, tall tree covering a large portion of the area in question, and that such a tree had become rare, due to environmental change. The discussion made me curious to learn more.

Days went by and I was at a party at my children's school, where I met a British professor in biology. He promised me, as a joke, to work on finding information about this tree, acknowledging that he had no information about this tree. The professor quickly came up with the information, which said that this tree had more than one scientific name, and promised to look for more information. However, he learned that the name "stupid tree" had been given to it by local residents, based on what they discovered through personal experience. He began by explaining the secret of this name, given to the tree by the primitive tribes who were residents of the forest. He said that the tree was a frightening myth, in all senses of the word frightening. It was huge, and tall, and solid, with a wide network of roots. The tree protected itself from wind and floods and other dangers. I asked, "So why is it called 'the stupid tree'?" Perhaps it was unfairly named, since it was so mighty.

My partner in the discussion responded, "Wait, there's more. This tree wasn't only big and strong in its make-up and appearance; I can tell you that it is hostile as well. The tree protects its fruit in an amazing fashion, very fiercely and effectively. The tasty, sugary fruit is on its highest branches, and can't be seen or reached easily, even by those with expertise in the matter, whether human or animal. Also, the tree wraps its fruit with big, thick leaves, to hide them from the eyes of the curious. The tree's success in hiding its fruit made the residents of the forest believe, mistakenly, that it had no fruit. The tree's roots and branches have thorns and dangerous spikes; something like barbed wire handing from the tree deter anyone from risking his life to pluck the fruit, if we assume that the tree actually exists. Thus, this tree puts its greatness, among other things, to use in deterrence, punishment and concealment, in order to keep its fruit for itself.

Here's the strange and funny part. This tree, like any other living being, is compelled by nature to give up its fruit, sooner or later. Perhaps the source of this tree's stupidity lies in the fact that it waits for the moon to disappear at the end of the lunar cycle. Under the cover of darkness, the tree gives up its fruit, one after another, extremely quickly, believing that no one will see it or steal its fruit, which have been produced after considerable effort. First of all, it gives up its fruit under this total darkness and second, it tosses its fragile fruit down from a high altitude. The fruit hits the ground, as the tree hopes that the fruit will be hidden when the morning sun rises and becomes hot, without anyone noticing. Thus, the tree will have achieved a great benefit by preventing others from obtaining the fruit.

In the second part of the story, an uneducated or uncivilized person from one of the primitive tribes in the forest appears. He is armed with nothing but courage, and a little bit of wisdom. He observers the tree from a distance, and from up close, admiring the greatness of this tree. But by coincidence, he discovers the secret of this tree. He discovers something dangerous - that he can get most or all of the delicious fruit of this tree, with no trouble at all. All he has to do is show up during the moonless nights of each month, along with some friends, and sit under the trunk and branches, holding big leaves, resembling banana tree leaves, or old rags, and catch the fruit, safe and sound. He discovers that he can get the precious fruit of this tree just by sitting and waiting at the right time. He's astonished that he can obtain this fruit in just an hour, after the tree spent 6 months producing and guarding it. In his primitive language, the tribesman can find no better description of the tree than "stupid," implying that despite his primitiveness and ignorance, he is thousands of times smarter than the tree.

The tree is armed with everything, while he is armed only with patience, to await the suitable time. He discovers an important piece of wisdom, namely that greatness and stupidity are inseparable twins.

I contemplate this story as I think hard about the development of the American-Iranian-Arab struggle over the last two and a half decades. The mullahs and ayatollahs of Iran squatted under the "stupid American-Arab tree" until the fruit began to fall into their hands and laps, with no trouble.

The true story of this tragic tale begins when ignorance and arrogance led Saddam Hussein to invade Iran, due to various pretexts, some of which were fabricated. Some truths did exist in these pretexts, but these in no way justify waging a total war and occupation. There were 8 years of fighting and bloody confrontations that destroyed everything, including an entire generation of young people on both sides.

In 1988 the first Gulf War ended, along with Iran's insistence that the Baath regime in Iraq had to fall. Perhaps it was the end of the dream to create a Shiite Islamic Republic in Iraq, along Iranian lines. Overnight we saw the dream of occupying Baghdad and liberating the Shiite holy places and other areas, along with other dreams, evaporate. From the end of 1981 to the end of 1988, the Iranian leadership strongly resisted the idea of a cease fire and ending the war, hoping that it would be able to achieve a military victory over Iraq that would see most or all of these dreams come true.

In practical terms, Iran the State and Iran the Revolution lost the war and the wager; Iraq, the Arabs, America and West were the winners, even if at a great price. Ayatollah Khomeini decided to accept an unconditional ceasefire in 1988, a decision that was described as being forced to drink the bitter cup of poison.

After it did so, the Iran leadership finally stood up, after its painful experience (materially and in terms of its morale) of crawling and sitting under the tree to see what the future would bring; all it did was sit and wait patiently. Its wait lasted only 24 months, when stupidity began to flow through the tree. The surprise came on 2 August 1990, when Iraq invaded Kuwait and annexed it, destroying an Arab Gulf state that had put its political and material capabilities in the service of Iraq to prevent an Iranian victory in the first Gulf War. The liberation of Kuwait followed in February 1991, with fantastic fruit, or results, for Iran, obtained with no trouble or effort. These included the destruction of Arab solidarity, which had worked effectively to prevent Iranian aspirations from the first Gulf War, and the destruction of Iraq militarily, politically and economically; it was a key Arab state in the regional balance of power and Iran's historical rival. Iran couldn't destroy Iraq, but the latter was able to destroy itself, like the stupid tree did when it gave up its fruit at no cots. During the events of 1990 and 1991, the Iranian leadership learned the wisdom of sitting under the tree. The capabilities of a leading, if not the leading enemy of Iran in the region were destroyed; Iraq was now out of the strategic calculations, as the regional power and might of Iran grew.

On 11 September 2001, a big new stupid tree appeared in surprising fashion in the forest of ignorance, when al-Qaida attacked on American territory. The US reaction created more fruit, which fell into the laps of those underneath the tree. The immediate American reaction involved the destruction of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. This regime, in its fundamentalist, extremist nature, was a big threat and challenge to the rulers in Tehran, their ideological revolution, and their regional aspirations. At the same time, US policy provided more free fruit when it decided to reduce the role of Saudi Arabia, subjecting it to political and diplomatic sanctions; this paralyzed its regional role and limited its ability to impose balance or deterrence to Iranian influence.

Iran's rulers were astonished when they got up from sitting under the stupid tree and looked around them. They saw Moses' magic wand do its trick in 3 of the most important regional competitors or enemies. The arena of regional conflict and competition was now completely free of those able to stand in the way of Iran's regional aspirations. After everything that happened, the Iranian leadership was completely certain and convinced that the stupid tree would remain stupid, and its free fruit would continue to fall from the branches with no trouble at all, and nothing in return except for patience.

The US invasion of Iraq took place in 2003 and confirmed the wisdom of waiting under this mythical tree. The invasion strengthened Iran's self confidence and confidence in the stupidity of others. When the US leadership was busy planning the military occupation of Iraq, the Iranian leadership was busy in parallel, planning the occupation of Iraq in terms of politics and intelligence agencies, and the reaping of the fruit of miscalculation and frightening ignorance. What the Americans learned from the experiences of other occupying forces was that there is a fundamental difference between the ability to engage in a military occupation, the easiest part of any such process, and the ability to impose control of foreign territory politically and through intelligence agencies. This needs a lot more than the use of "magical," advanced military technology.

At the present time, Iran is taking its special place as it imposes its indirect control over Iraq by employing various means that other regional and international parties lack. Iran is reaching out to grab the biggest and best fruit from the stupid tree over the last 2 decades, by which we mean the dream of controlling Iraq.

The moral of the story of the stupid tree is that Iran, whether through an agreement or a stroke of luck, has become the biggest beneficiary of American and Arab policy in the Middle East.

* Mr. Ani is the Director of the Security and Terrorism Studies Department, Gulf Research Center, Dubai