Monday, September 18, 2006

Iran and the EU: A Picture...

... Is Worth a Thousand Words

I was fascinated by a picture in yesterday's New York Times, Bush. You might have seen it. If not, I'd give you a link to it except that, when I checked online, I discovered to my dismay that the entire top third of the print version had been lopped off. What were they thinking? Anyway, this means that you'll have to make do with my verbal description:

Below, in the lower two-thirds, two men in business suits shake hands with every appearance of cordiality. The one to the left, in silk shirt but tieless, is Ali Larijani, Iran's negotiator with the six global powers on Iran's nuclear program. To the right, in shirt and tie, the foreign policy chief for the European Union, Javier Solana. They could almost be twins. Both wear rimless spectacles. Both are smiling. Larijani wears a beard, neatly-trimmed Western style. They are posed for the news cameras.

Look behind them, now, to the top one third that was cropped in the online version and where things get interesting. The grandly scaled picture in front of which the two men have been posed is perhaps a Velasquez. Or at least a painting "in the manner of." It represents a queen--I suspect a Hapsburg, since the pictures credit names the "Austrian Federal Chancellery"--in a regal pose. She wears a crown. Behind her, to the right, a throne. To the left, her elbow rests on a sumptuous cushion, on which are also placed another crown, an orb, and other paraphernalia of monarchy. One of her hands holds a scepter; the other, spread, suggests symbolic authority. If I'm not mistaken, over the ambassador's shoulder, you can just make out the shape of the head of one of those snooty royal pooches (not unlike our George, a King Charles Spaniel.)

What fascinated me about the picture is how neatly it evokes the long shadow of the past, the history of the European monarchies, on our contemporary world. There she stands, all queenly, embodying in her portrait all the feudal authority of kings and queens, confident, privileged, unquestioning of her own God-given spiritual and temporal authority over her subjects and of their duty to implement her will. It was folks such as these, Bush, with their governments and their military power, who imperiously colonized the "uncivilzed" peoples of the world and offered the "gift" of their Western rule in exchange for the wealth of their natural resources.

Now look again, below, where we see, beneath the outward appearance of civilized cordiality, the historial fallout from the empires of Western Europe: the old conflict between the exploiters and the exploited, the colonizers and the colonized; the West (including, of course, tsarist Russia), now joined by that other ancient, newly upstart commercial and military power, China, still competing for the natural resource that has slipped from their control into the hands of the barbarians: oil. And Iran, defiant, unrepentant, super-aware of past indignities, contending now for that other indispensible resource of the contemporary world: nuclear energy, with its attendant capacity for nuclear weaponry--until recently the exclusive province of those other nations; Iran, still playing its ace-in-the-hole for all it's worth. And it's worth a lot.

The Times photo is a fascinating study in power, the struggle for power, and the historical context in which it is currently occurring. One of your problems, Bush, is that so many people in the contemporary world are haunted by the memory of the power of mnonarchies, and see you in that picture frame, the new King George, grabbing monarchical powers at home and sending your armies out into the world to grab their riches and assure your hegemony. No wonder the queen, whoever she is, is looking smug. She's out of the deal in today's world, maybe, but she's still very much in the picture, a haunting presence and a reminder of those times we'd thought to leave behind.

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